"I wish you weren't dead," I whispered to his body. I say his body because I wasn't whispering to him. Obviously. Adam wasn't a being anymore. What was left of him was a hunk of meat, blood that had formerly flowed now stilling and putrefying, organic matter softly decaying into nothing. Already it was likely that worms were beginning the slow trek towards the meat they smelled, and that later on, when my husband's remains were prime for feasting, they'd make a banquet out of his flesh. One day he'd be nothing—not even a skeleton to show for a man I'd loved. Gone, and me unable to mourn him. The shell of him didn't matter anyway—only the things I couldn't describe did: the smell of him, the feel of his hair when fingers brushed through, and the way it looked when he smiled and when he frowned, or that day when he was so crushed he could barely stand, when the words wouldn't form on his lips and he seemed to sway on his feet. I can describe the way it looked when Adam was so absolutely joyful, his face looked like the sun itself, and his eyes were like firecrackers; I can also describe when he was so solemn about something seemingly unimportant that people have been doing since time began, and yet he treated it like the most serious ritual of all, and held me like glass in his hands, breakable and fragile like everything else. Later on, long after the funeral had passed and the few mourners had put their black clothes away, I would be able to describe what it felt like to grow his daughter inside me, to feel her kick and tumble her way through my very center—which I had used to think was my heart, but after I felt her, I knew how wrong I was. But then, as I sat at the graveyard, I could only describe the things I'd had, the things I'd been destined to lose.
Adam once told me something that is applicable now: his greatest fear. When I inquired of it, he told me that his greatest fear was that someday, he would be forgotten. I didn't know what to say, but he elaborated. He told me to think of the very first people—not Adam and Eve; everyone knew them. Think of their grandchildren, and their children. Written in the Bible, right? Their names are common knowledge, so they must have existed. But what about the billions and billions and maybe even trillions of people who have also lived? All the civilizations that we know existed? All the slaves in Greece who died by the roadside and were buried and left and forgotten after a day? All the women and children who have died in childbirth, and their children? All the people who died in battle, or of disease, or that were murdered, or died of old age—who was there to verify their existence? No one. Their relatives were dead and gone, forgotten just like them. A point Adam made, to explain further: If you'd asked someone to tell you who Nefertiti was, they could probably tell you she lived in ancient Egypt, and could maybe give you details of her life—when she was born, what she did, how she died. But what about her slaves? Who was there to vouch for them? No one. They were unimportant, had not been recorded, their family was long dead. No one even knew their genders, or their names. Or what they had smiled at, or when they had cried. Or how their lives had ended.
He told me, "This is the fate that awaits all of us."
At the time, I could think of nothing to say. After Adam died, I spent weeks thinking about it in a blank haze, refusing to accept what I knew was true: we all would die, and everyone—even the one who was more important to me than life itself—would be forgotten.
When I began to throw up in the mornings, my mother—who routinely checked on me after he died—took me to see the doctor, who told me the impossible. One last remnant of the one I loved existed, one more who could vouch for his existence, one more who was affected by his life—and I was carrying that one in my womb.
I considered abortion, out of pure selfishness. How could I look on a child that had his face, and love them without thinking of him? Answer was: I couldn't. It would be torment for me. Missing him was already a hollow ache: what would a child do to me?
I didn't go through with it. I never even made an appointment, never told my mother or the doctor that I had thought about abortion. It was a passing thought, and I brushed it away. Nothing mattered any more. What was a little torment to me?
During one of my ultrasounds, the doctor told me I was having a girl. Adam's daughter, a voice seemed to whisper inside of me. She'll be more him than you. Of course, how could his spirit not transfer into her? What could I possibly name a girl who would always be Adam's daughter to me?
As soon as she was born, I realized my selfishness. The pain of birth was extreme; I thought I'd welcome it because it would take me away from my emotional pain. Of course it was nothing like that. It was agony, pure and simple, and all I wanted was for it to go away. It wasn't a blessing, but the result was: Evelyn Rose, Ella, my daughter.
She had his wide smile and his grey eyes, but the rest belonged to me. However, the smile and the eyes wouldn't come till later. They were a reward, for the first year: diaper-changing, waking up in the middle of the night almost every day to calm a wailing baby, dressing her, washing her, rocking her to sleep and praying she'd stay that way. My daughter, for the first year, was a blessing, because she brought me back to practicality and distracted me from my grief; for the rest of my life, she was a blessing simply because she was him and she was me: she was Ella.
My mother financially supported me until Ella was three, and then she babysitted while I worked. My job as a secretary at a veterinary clinic wasn't particularly stimulating or enjoyable, but the hours were decent and the money, mercifully, was livable. I came home at six, after eight hours of working, to a widely grinning daughter who was happy to see me and a mother who was, too: she could go home. Don't get me wrong, Mom loved Ella, but she looked after the girl from ten to six, Monday to Thursday and Saturday, and deserved a break, too: and she knew it.
Ella grew from my grief, and so the powers of Fate decided to make her a frighteningly happy child. She loved to play in the sunshine and hated the rain; she was a free spirit. We didn't have much money, but Ella didn't mind: she wore whatever I picked out for her. Occasionally her teacher would phone, apologetically, and say that Ella had been bullied that day and another child had reported it, but when I asked Ella why she hadn't said anything, Ella was surprised—she hadn't known it was a big deal. Ella wasn't tough, exactly: she was just carefree. Bullying didn't reach her; she cared little about what people thought.
When Ella was nine, I was fired, and began a new job as a cashier at a local gas station. The pay, as you can imagine, was terrible, and unfortunately I could only afford to buy Ella's new clothes from a nearby liquidation store. She was teased mercilessly, and it finally broke her. I didn't see that she was upset when she came home, but I heard her, in her room, quietly crying. I went inside and discovered that she was staring into her closet without blinking. Upon hearing me, she looked me in the eye and asked: "Mommy, why don't they like what I wear?" It broke my heart in half. After this I meticulously saved up money until I could buy Ella quality clothes from the mall, but the bullying didn't stop. We were officially "the poor family", and kids just don't let up.
Around this time, I had stopped thinking of Adam. My grief no longer greeted me when I woke up in the morning and haunted me at night and in my dreams. I remembered him from time to time, and my pain hadn't fully left, of course, but it wasn't so hard as before. Now my focus was on Ella: how to meet her needs and make her happy. I discovered she loved music; when we traveled in our beat-up car, she would beg me to turn the radio on. So I bought her a CD player and two classical CDs. I knew it was meager—the CD player was old, and I had bought it from a random man on the street for only three dollars, with the CDs coming free with it—but Ella was overjoyed at my gift, and I was glad. Her room was small, but she kept it well cleaned, and it was filled with music whenever I saw her in it. The lovely piano pieces swirled through our apartment and made it a happier place, and I was grateful for this, too.
One day, the owner of the gas station—a kindly man, Ed, in his fifties—told me he had won the lottery, and was giving me a share before retiring. I was flabbergasted at the amount: twenty thousand dollars.
Six thousand went toward Ella's college tuition. That left us with fourteen thousand dollars, a giant amount and more money than I'd ever handled at once. I got rid of the piece of crap car and bought a used one in better condition; that was seven thousand. I put three thousand away for a rainy day. That left four thousand dollars, and I knew exactly what I'd do.
By now, Ella was twelve. She was going through perilous mood swings: happy one minute, sad the next. She was also moody, a trait I'd never really associated with her. I knew what she'd like. I bought her a laptop computer, set up an iTunes account, and got an MP3 player and gave it to her. I gave her free reign of the store, with three conditions: #1: That she not go crazy with song-buying—that meant three songs a month; #2: That she not download songs she would feel awkward listening to with me (when I first imagined being a mother, I thought if my child wanted to listen to raunchy or violent music, fine—I'd be cool; but now I found myself in a more realistic position, and I knew there were some nasty songs out there and wanted her to avoid them); #3: No downloading anything illegally (I stressed this one). She agreed readily to my terms, and when I checked her MP3 later on (all right, I'm overprotective; so sue me), I found that she had downloaded mostly classical and instrumental songs, and a few by indie rock bands. I applauded my daughter's good taste. (Well, at least by my standards.)
When Ella was 14, she started to pull away from me, physically and emotionally. She was now going to high school, and at parent-teacher interviews, her teachers expressed concern that Ella was absolutely, utterly friendless: she didn't interact with anyone; she picked a partner at random when the time came for an activity where one was needed, but tried not to speak with that person if she could help it; and she was seen at lunch break sitting alone in a corner. I asked her about it, and she told me everything was fine. I didn't believe it.
A few months after this I discovered an old diary of Ella's hidden in a closet, from elementary school. I found entries that stated how lonely she was, how much she wished things would change, how sad she was that people were so mean—and then the last entry, dated the year before she went to high school: I wish I knew who my father was.
That cut me to the core. I had never imagined that Ella had any curiosity about her father; looking back then, I realized how selfish that was of me, to assume a child didn't wonder who her father was. I had never really discussed Adam with Ella; early on, the wounds were too fresh, and later, I had never thought about it and she had never asked me. I thought then on Adam's resemblance to Ella: the way they both smiled so widely they could swallow the sun if they wanted to; the way it sometimes seemed like they had swallowed the sun, by the brightness in their eyes; the way they both loved music so much, and how the world seemed to revolve around it for them. And I thought of her wide grey eyes and something else about her face, something indescribable that tied her to her father with an invisible rope that you could see if you knew them both very well. I wrote all these things down, then I sat down with Ella and talked with her about them.
I was surprised by the level of ignorance Ella had about Adam. She knew he was dead; that much she had gleaned along the line. But she knew nothing else, despite always being curious about it. I told her all the ways they were alike, and then I told her what I had felt when he died. That frightened her, the expression of the level of my grief. But she was grateful for the stories I had to tell; she laughed with me, cried a bit, and then told me she loved me and went to bed.
That night I had a dream that Ella hanged herself. I woke up gasping, and then, on an impulse, went to check if she was all right. I found her in the bathroom, attempting to overdose on sleeping pills.
Ella went to therapy that year, and became distant from me. Occasionally, as I made dinner or jogged, I took her MP3 player with me, as I didn't have one of my own; the songs she had downloaded more recently were increasingly angry and sad. I knew that there was a playlist of "Most played" that automatically came with the device; the song at the top, that had been played over 1000 times, was about feeling lost in a sea of grief and feeling as if waves were washing over your head. The second most played song was about suicide by drowning. They were both very beautiful, but I felt sadness as I listened to them. How lost did my daughter feel?
I tried to connect with Ella, but she pulled away. One day, as I tried to get her to play a board game with me, she lashed out, claiming that I only loved her because she was my dead husband's daughter. I was very hurt, and I yelled back. It wasn't either of our finest moments, but after I yelled, she went quiet for a moment and then apologized. We watched a movie that night: science fiction with nonstop action and humor. We lost ourselves in it and huddled close together, and for the next few years, until she moved out, we were friends again, if slightly quieter ones.
I lived alone for years, while Ella went to college and became a paramedic. She wasn't a particularly social woman, but she wasn't as lonely as I was; she had learned to cope with time, as making friends wasn't her strongest suit. She eventually married a quiet elevator repairman named Fred who was polite and friendly, and they had two children, Miranda and Jonathan.
Ella was killed by a car crash when she was thirty-seven; most eyewitnesses agree that she stepped in front of the car. I was in agony and shock; I didn't know what to do. But I knew there was another suffering, too; I didn't want to see Fred go down the same path that I had. So I took him aside at the funeral. His eyes were blank, blank as mine must have been at Adam's funeral, and I was very afraid. So I told him that day, "Fred, neither of us can go down that cycle of grief again. Please, if you get counseling, I'll get it with you."
Thank God, he agreed. Both of us went to counseling, and, following my advice, Fred told the children about their mother when they were old enough to understand. Fred and I remained friends, and I was involved in the raising of my grandchildren. Fred also eventually remarried—a vivacious woman named Rita, his therapist—and they had three children of their own, Carmen, Trina, and Zach.
I've since retired. Miranda is in college; Jonathan is a lawyer and has a very young son. I'm old, almost at my time, but I'm not afraid. I wasn't taken before my time. Unlike Adam and Ella, I'm ready. And there's not much I can do anymore. My body is tired, worn with grief and time, and I'm old as the hills. And sad, too, although I won't admit it. Sad for not everything I've lost, but everything Adam and Ella could've had, but had taken from them instead. Everything I myself might have been, if not weighed down by a crown of grief and a robe of regret.
I have had many, many dreams, and out of all of these thousands, eight were the same—the same dream, eight consecutive nights, recently.
It goes like this:
Miranda marries a man named Timothy and they have a daughter, Nina. Nina has two children. Those children have three children. Those children have four children. Those children have nine children. Those children have seventeen children. And it goes on.
Carmen has a daughter, Isabella. Isabella has two children. Those children have four children. Those children have seven children. Those children have sixteen children. Those children have eighteen children. Those children have thirty-four children. And it goes on.
Zach has a son, Mike. Mike has a son. That son has a daughter. That girl has three children. Those children have six children. Those children have five children. Those children have eight children. Those children have fourteen children. Those children have twenty children. Those children have thirty children. And it goes on.
Jonathan's son, Tyler, has four children. Those children have three children. Those children have seven children. Those children have nine children. Those children have eighteen children. Those children have twenty-five children. Those children have forty-four children. Those children have sixty-nine children. And it goes on.
As you can see, the bloodline continues. And in my dreams, I know the names of each of my descendants and step-descendants, the people who would not exist if I hadn't. If Adam hadn't. Cause and effect, you see—for I can't help but think of it clinically—if Adam and I hadn't existed, Ella wouldn't. If Ella hadn't had two children, many others wouldn't have existed. If she hadn't died, Fred and Rita would not have had their children.
In fact, I foresaw in my dreams over a million descendants. Each name I know. Their stories are a mystery, but I know the names. At least in my dream, I knew: when I woke, I could no longer recall. Dream logic, I suppose.
I don't think this is a coincidence. I think it's fate, a cosmic warning that Adam was right. Many, many people will exist, obviously, and none of them will be remembered or, in a roundabout way, even matter as anything more than breeding stock. I hate to think so clinically, but it's true. That's all we are. But we need to matter more than that if we are to ever make any sense of our journey here on Earth.
And I write these words because they are absolutely, positively not enough, and never will be, but they are a start. Please. Remember this man, and this girl, and me, too—think of all those who came before us and will come after—those who have no voice, who have been lost in the ashes of time.
Maybe in a dream, their names will come to you, too. If they do, write them down. Do it for me.