I knew I shouldn’t have worked that night. It was so cold and the snow had already accumulated to more than a foot. It was still snowing when I left the pizzeria where I worked. The streets were deserted and dark. If it were not for the fact I lived in a small town, I might have been afraid. Instead, I was annoyed at Debbie for not picking me up like she promised.
“I have to meet Will,” she mumbled as she put on her boots at the end of her shift. “I’ll be back at closing, I promise.” With a quick hug and a backward wave she was gone.
As I cleaned up the dining room, I kept checking through the big window in the front of the restaurant for Debbie’s car. I watched the snow– big flakes of snow falling silently to the road. The tire tracks that were there earlier were gone. No one was out on a night like this.
I used the restaurant telephone to call her. Surprisingly, she answered.
“Where are you?”
“I’m leaving now.” I heard her giggle, and as she hung up I heard Will’s voice tell her I would have to wait just another minute.
It was after ten– a full hour after closing, and I knew if I didn’t set the alarm and leave, my boss would have something to say to me the next day. I pulled my boots over my shoes, bundled myself in the heavy winter coat I wore, turned off the lights and set the alarm on my way out the door.
I stood outside under the awning until my teeth started to chatter. I walked across the street to the phone booth and made another call.
He answered on the second ring.
“Hello?” His voice in my ear warmed me all the way to my heart. I could hear my daughter in the background laughing.
“Hiya,” I said. “Care to pick up your snow-bunny wife? Debbie is a no-show, and I’m freezing my tush off.”
“Sure,” he said, distracted by whatever Erica was finding so funny. “Let me get the Noodle bundled up tight, and we’ll be right there. Love you to the moon.” He would do anything for me, and I for him, but it wasn’t always that way.
High school sweethearts, homecoming king and queen, when my father beat me so bad I ended up in the hospital, I begged him to marry me just to get me out of the house. I was 16, he was 18. We cared about each other but we were so young. We had yet to discover what being in love really was. We married in June, right after graduation. He did his thing, I did mine. We hardly saw each other for the first few months. I worked at the local pizza joint; he had trouble holding down a job. He was into partying with his buddies and being gone for days at a time, but I didn’t care. I was away from my father.
We lived this life until I became pregnant with our daughter Erica. Everything changed. Shad became a different man. He found a job as a mechanic; we moved into a nicer place and fell in love.
Through my pregnancy, he took care of me like I was royalty. Waking up in the middle of the night to go after some weird craving I had. Rubbing my swollen feet after a shift at the restaurant. It was perfect. And magical.
Her entrance into this world was rough. Labor pains ten minutes apart for thirty-six hours. I was so exhausted when she was ready, I hardly had the strength to push. Then they told me to stop pushing. The cord was wrapped around her neck. They wheeled me into a surgical room and wanted to put me under. I screamed and cried and shook my head back and forth so they couldn’t give me the anesthesia. I could feel the pressure to push; she so wanted to meet her parents. They were able to use the forceps to move the cord and whoosh, she was here. They put her on my chest, and I immediately counted all the fingers and toes. Five and five and five and five. Then I passed out.
When I awoke, Shad was there holding Erica. Tears streamed down my face as I watched a new father tenderly love his daughter. I knew I had everything I could ever ask for.
“I love you beyond,” I said, the snow still falling. “Hurry.”
While I waited for them to make the twelve-mile drive to pick me up, I watched the snowplow move slowly down the street. Thirty minutes went by. Then forty-five. I called our house again but he didn’t answer. The snowplow made its second pass and slowed down when it drove by me. I waved at Mr. Cooper behind the wheel of the big machine. He leaned out of the window and asked if I needed a ride.
“No thanks, Mr. Cooper, Shad is coming any minute now. How are the roads toward the house?”
He was my neighbor and after a snow he always plowed our streets first. “All clear, Miss Marley. Plowed and salted.” He tipped his hat and rolled down the road.
A few minutes later, Debbie and Will came roaring up in his ’68 Camaro. He screeched to a halt in front of the telephone booth where I had been waiting. His car kept sliding down the snow-covered road. Debbie did not wait for the car to completely stop before she jumped out and ran to me.
“Get in.” She had been crying.
“About time you showed up. Do you know how long…”
“There’s been an accident.” The air around me seemed to evaporate as if a giant vacuum sucked it up. As I got in the front seat, a million questions ran through my mind, but I could not speak.
Will spun the car around and headed in the direction of my house. I saw the red lights bouncing off of the trees before we came to it, and as we came around a bend in the road I saw what used to be our car, torn and mangled on the side of the road, a yellow sheet draped over the hood and windshield. I got out of Will’s Camaro and walked toward the wreckage. The officer there stopped me.
“Please, miss, give them some room to work.” He was referring to the firemen and the paramedics busy around the car.
I could hear Debbie crying behind me. I stood there in the snow for a moment, my heart beating loud enough I could no longer hear the equipment. I was staring at the sheet when I saw it. Dark brown against the yellow. An ear. A bunny ear. It belonged to Mr. Benny Bunny, Erica’s favorite stuffed toy. She never went anywhere without it. That broke my trance. I ran to the car and lifted the sheet before anyone could stop me.
She was half-in half-out of the windshield. I gently ran my hand over her tiny face to wipe away some of the blood. She did not move.
“Noodle?” I whispered. “Wake up, honey. Mommy’s gonna take you home now. I’ll kiss the boo-boos and you will be good as new.” I tried to take her off the car when a hand stopped me. It was the priest from our church.
I screamed then. I kept on screaming until the sound refused to come out.
Shad hung on for a few days before he died. He never woke up. He was twenty-two. Erica died at the scene. She was three-and-a-half. They were hit head-on by a drunk driver who walked away with a few minor scratches. Neither Shad nor Erica was wearing a seatbelt. Back then, all the kids stood on the front seat next to Mom and Dad.
Several weeks later, the man who slaughtered my family went to court. I was right there to see that he paid for the loss of my daughter and my husband. The prosecutor did his very best to prepare me for what could happen. In 1985 the drunk driving laws were not as strict as they are today. This was the man’s fourth DUI in a year. He had never served a day in prison, and wouldn’t today. The judge gave him a suspended sentence, ordered him to undergo treatment, took his license away for six months and slapped him with a $500 fine. The lives of my family were worth $250 each.
I walked around in a daze after that. I couldn’t sleep, or eat, or leave my house. My brother David would come by every day and talk to me through the door. I never answered. My heart was empty, my soul was gone. I did not care if I lived or died. Life meant nothing without them.
For a while, I turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain that never left. I went through counseling to attempt to understand. I searched and finally found a doctor who would tie my tubes at 23 years old so I would never have to endure the horror of losing another child, as I was sure I was fated to do just that.
I read all the books on motherhood while I was pregnant. They don’t tell you how the pain of losing a child rips your soul from its very foundation. They forget to mention that every time you see a child for the rest of your life, you will be reminded of what you have lost.
Even now, almost 30 years later, I am still asked if I have children. My heart still stops a beat before I answer. Time heals, they said. Eventually, you’ll get over it they claimed. They lie.