December 21, 2007
The boy is sinewy, his body filled with the lanky strength of adolescence. His hands are large, and his fingers short and thick. They hang there at his sides lightly like leaves, his pale palms turning gently outwards. His hair is thick and curly, toppling down from the crown of his head and framing his downcast green eyes like a black shroud. His expression is stricken. Pain is held in his tightly clenched jaw and furrowed eyebrows.

He stands before an unfilled grave. The hole at his feet, which is in reality barely larger than the plain white gravestone which marks it, seems to spread before him with a looming, ominous presence. In the depths of this gaping hole is a glistening coffin of syrup colored oak- his baby daughter.

Lily had been a tiny, beautiful baby- all soft, pale skin and blue eyes. When he first carried her in to his apartment she had seemed so delicate, her eyes squinting in the clear light of the spring afternoon and her tiny fists balled like flower buds underneath her chin. Setting her carrier down on the coffee table, the boy had taken a finger and traced it over the contour of her round cheek, feeling her soft skin against his roughened finger. He was a boy only, barely nineteen, and yet here was his baby, her warm and pulsing flesh cupped against his hand. Sighing with wonder, the boy had forgotten everything else, forgotten even June’s cold glare as she had limped out of the hospital doors and in to the whirling night. None of it mattered.

The following months are all so wonderfully sharp in his memory- like tiny leaves pressed and preserved between pages of a book. Closing his eyes, the boy can still see the nursery as it was. The creamy blue walls of the tiny room danced with light filtering through the leaves of the potted plants on the window sill. The white crib he had found on a curbside and repainted stood in the corner, the blue and yellow star mobile twinkling and rotating slowly above it.

And there is Lily, crying in her crib, her pale cheeks flushed deep pink. She had been so perfect, so untainted and innocent, her blue eyes wide and mouth opened in a pink “O” at every new encounter. And she was smart, god was she smart, walking at ten months and talking at twelve, curious of everything and afraid of nothing. The outside world in that short time diminished to nothing but quick stops at the supermarket for baby formula or groceries. There was only his baby, his delicate, tragically beautiful Lily.

Suddenly, the moments are flashing before him so quickly- Lily lying on a white woolen blanket on the floor, Lily crawling to him as he entered with a bottle, Lily stumbling in to his arms on trembling legs. She was everywhere, a thousand Lilies in his mind crawling and crying and cooing, looking up at him with intensely blue eyes. In his mind, the boy touches gently the memories of those months, each of these moments a flower in a vast row.

And suddenly, there Lily is again in his mind, but so painfully different. This time, her pale skin is not creamy, but sharp and stark white against the blackness of his mind. He can see her coughing in her crib that first night, her tiny chest fluttering and then heaving as she struggled in a losing fight to breathe. Her face was clenched with pain, and her mouth opened, but nothing came out but hoarse, rattling wheezes.

Panicking, the boy had picked Lily up, wrapping her quickly in a blanket as he pressed her against his chest and darted out of the house. There, caught in the chill of the September evening, he had stood for only a split second before sprinting down the street to the hospital- there was no time to wait for the bus.

Panting, the boy had burst through the glass doors of the hospital, shouting desperately, “I have a sick baby here! A sick baby!” Within moments, he was being ushered down the hallway by a nurse, and then herded in to a cold, tiled room. There, slowly, breathlessly, he had placed Lily on the papered examination table, feeling the fading warmth of her body slipping from his fingers.

For the rest of the night, the boy was pushed back in a blur of doctors rushing in and out, nurses hooking IVs to Lily’s tiny wrists, the liquid dripping, dripping, dripping, the antiseptic smell of the hospital, the confusion of medical papers shoved at him, the black pen stuck in his hand and strangers telling him where to sign if he wanted his daughter to live.

As he woke up the next morning in his chair, he leapt up and quickly crossed the room in terse, anxious steps. There she was, his beautiful baby, swathed in snaking clear tubes crossing her tiny body, attached to her flaring nose, her limp arms. Her skin was brittle, mottled with blue, her black hair thin and dry. And yet, she was breathing, she was alive.

The boy had stood before his daughter then as he stood now, his head tipped back, eyes closed as he whispered It’s okay, she’s okay. It’ll be alright... my little baby is alive.

The preceding months were wild tangles of hospital visits, late nights spent watching Lily breathing, checking her tentative pulse, watching his life’s savings rapidly dwindle. TB, the doctors had told him. Her lungs are saturated with the bacteria. And he imagined her tiny lungs like the thin black leaves of an over watered vine- drooping, lifeless, soaked with so much moisture that they had lost their smooth waxy texture and become nothing more than squelching masses of membrane.

Even in that last month- a biting December swirling with icy snow- he had not given up hope. The doctors were shaking their heads, whispering that he might as well give up- the baby’s body couldn’t stand up to the onslaught of bacteria. But no, Lily was strong; she couldn’t die, not when her tender life was just beginning.

The boy woke up one morning after dozing off in the rocking chair inside the nursery. Rubbing his eyes, he had stood up from his chair, leaned over and looked in to Lily’s crib. Her fragile, small body was warped and curled like a dead leaf; her gaunt face tipped back, her mouth open, perhaps gaping for air even at the last moment. He knew it even before he touched her and felt the shocking cold of her skin- she was dead.

And then his body was withering, he was dropping to his knees, clutching the side of the crib, his head dropping, hot tears sliding down his face. No, no, no. Even as he sobbed he could feel the shame. For so long he had remained optimistic and strong for his daughter, his youthful and lithe body lifting her up for a bath or running to the drug store in the middle of the night. But he had slept last night-why had he fallen asleep? If he had stayed awake, maybe Lily would still be alive. Maybe he could have felt her fading pulse or heard her rasps and quiet whimpers and rushed her to the hospital. And now, now he was sitting there, crumpled and crying like a child. Where was his strength? What kind of a father would let his child die? What kind of a monster was he?

With a struggle, the boy opens his eyes. The air is still and suffocatingly silent. His chest is heaving as he looks down at the grave, the brown of the coffin and black of the dirt spilling now across its top blurred through his tears. Still, he can imagine Lily’s tiny body resting inside the coffin, still and pale in its wooden prison.

Suddenly, the boy’s hand shoots up and wipes the tears away before they can fall. Not now, he will not let Lily down again. No more tears, no more remembering, no more hoping vainly that somehow things will change. Lily is dead, oh god, Lily is dead. And it is all his fault. Her life slipped through his fingers like flower petals, blown away from his groping hands because he had been so careless…And oh god Lily I hope you can forgive me, oh god, oh god…

He stands silently for a moment, forcing back his tears as he watches the gravediggers slowly piling crumbling soil on her coffin, dead brittle leaves wafting downwards and resting in her grave. And then, he walks slowly away, daring himself to place one foot in front of the other, daring himself not to submit to the pain which tries desperately to cripple his heart. His body is stiff and straight, his hands pinned to his sides. His once naive and innocent eyes are clenched shut against the unfairness of the world, its ugliness and pain.

No more.

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