Terence would miss her the most.
Teresa would grieve in her way–wildly and destructively, leaving all the rest to clean up after her.
Nicole would cling to Terence and she would lose her footing and she would not regain it again for a very long time.
Lamar would grieve as a child would–selfishly and away from them.
Terence would be angry. His anger would swallow him and everyone else. He would rage against them, beat against them, because he could not rage against her. He could not beat against her, he could not tell her not to go.
Could he, would beg her not to.
Mama stay, his voice would crack. It hadn’t deepened as much as he pretended, and the lilt at the end would pierce her soul.
She would, if she could. Not because he needed her–he didn’t. But she wanted to be there.
Helen looked down at TJ, asleep at her chest. He had fallen asleep at Cheryl’s breast, but she took him and he slept against her just as soundly. She loved him. He looked like Terence did at his age. She loved him more for it. She wished she could see him always. She hoped from somewhere she might.
As she clutched TJ to her a shadow came over her. She gazed upon it, but she did not start as others might. She knew this face. It was hers, but more beautiful.
Helen was a handsome woman. She was beautiful, though, once.
Her beauty had not faded; it resided beneath the surface, saved,like all of the things she wanted to do, for later.
She saw this beautiful face–her face–not a month before, after Yvette died. A courtesy, Death said.
Helen was a girl, not yet six when she met Death the first time.
Ms. Rosie lived in the shack about a quarter of a mile down the dirt road–Helen didn’t think of it as a shack, not in those terms, but that is what it was. It was a shotgun shack, more cluttered yard than house, with more kids than anywhere else in the neighborhood. There were at least eleven at any given moment in Helen’s childhood there. Joe said there were more, he’d seen them himself, but that they’d taken to killing the rest, babies and kids alike. Joe said not to go over there without one of the older ones, just in case Ms. Rosie thought she’d missed one.
The summers in Eutaw were hot–not Georgia hellfire hot, Helen didn’t yet know that kind of heat. The summers in Eutaw were blistering and the kind of heat that tired you. It was the kind of heat you didn’t escape from, the kind you just melted into.
There was no pool in the colored part of Eutaw. The only water outside of the bath came from the creeks. There seemed to Helen to be thousands of little creeks for exploring and fishing when Joe and the boys let her come. There was only the one lake, though. Lake Hanged Man, the one that Joe said the White boys used to throw all the colored bodies into after their rallies. Joe said it was man made so you couldn’t find the bodies, that the white boys from Birmingham, some of Bull Conner’s boys were sent here into Eutaw just to build this lake.
If you went into Lake Hanged Man you would drown. There were 20 kids between Ms. Rosie and The Jones’, and the only one that was rumored to swim was Rufus, Ms. Rosie’s oldest boy. Joe said he could swim, but Helen knew he was full of shit. She said it, too. He slapped her in the face and pushed her. He towered over her threatening to tell everyone that she still pissed in the bed and she was almost six. It wasn’t true, but she didn’t say a word.
It was the first of a thousand times she was struck without a sound.
Joe and Rufus left Helen and LuBelle, Ms. Rosie’s fourth or fifth daughter, in charge. The older girls were sneaking into town while Mama and Daddy played cards with Miss Rosie and Mister (no one could remember his name). Helen thought he was alright, but LuBelle said she was glad all of them stayed in one room. She wouldn’t want to be alone with him.
Five times the threat, “you drown in Hanged man and they won’t find your body till it dries out and they pick out the rest of the colored bones.” It worked. They’d all seen the picture of Enmit Till, and that wasn’t but a year ago.
But it was so hot. Helen and LuBelle frowned through the dusty haze at the boys diving into the lake from the bank, spluttering and sinking, but laughing joyously. They were so hot.
They would hold hands.
The bottom of the lake was squishy and cool, and Helen thought she could feel worms beneath her feet wriggling into the mud. She turned to smile at LuBelle, who beamed back. Helen took the next step
And sank. Invisible hands ensnared her neck, tentacles shackled her, gripping her to the bottom of the lake. Hundreds of hanged men leered up at her, skeletal arms reaching out. She struggled, her lungs burning with muddy water.
No. Not nothing.
LuBelle. LuBelle was there with her, in the lake. Helen could discern her as clearly as if she were viewing her through glass. She looked smoother than she had, and Helen stopped struggling against the water. LeBelle reached for Helen and Helen gripped her icy palms. LuBelle carried Helen to the surface, cradled her firmly in her arms, and it was then that Helen realized, vaguely, that she was still holding LuBelle’s hand–a different LuBelle entirely. Her LuBelle was floating face down in the muddy water. Helen began to struggle, but LuBelle was strong.
Helen knew that it was not LuBelle that held her, but Death.
“Am I going to heaven?”Helen asked. She was not afraid. She was tired. LuBelle shook her head.
“No. I’m not here for you. Not yet.”
The second time she met Death was at Grandaddy’s funeral. She saw him on the front row. He saw her–he was Grandaddy and it made her smile–and he tipped his hat to her.
She smiled harder.
She thought he’d come for Jimmy before her. She didn’t tell anyone, she just assumed. She didn’t think he’d recover from the stroke.
He was not a good man. She would get better, one day. She would choose right.
At Yvette’s funeral she was numb. Yvette had received her letter. She had called and they had talked. Yvette had turned her life to God.
Helen didn’t know what Yvette said to him. She wished she did; part of it was being nosy. But more than that she wanted to know what other people said when they talked to God.
She talked to God about Terence a lot. She didn’t have a favorite child.
But if she did, Terence would be hers.
He protected her.
He was the best part of her life, the only part that she didn’t feel was unfinished. She wondered if she told him that often enough.
Death was there at Yvette’s funeral. Sitting between the kids looking just like their mother. Death turned and stared at Helen and she knew.
It was the equivalent of your life flashing before your eyes. Suddenly everything makes you sick, and when you think about all of the life you thought you’d have time for, all the summers you would never see, you could become overwhelmed and stuck.
There are millions of things–billions of things–you could do with time left. When the clock is running down and Death is kind enough to let you see it, you can go places and see people and do things.
Helen ordered a cake. Teresa and Terence’s birthdays would be months away, but everyone should have a cake on their birthday.
Helen wanted to be there for all of their birthdays, but she would not.
At 45 Helen knew she would not live to see 46.
That morning, her fourth time seeing Death, she visited with him on the porch.
“Death,” she greeted him shortly.
“LuHelen,” Death replied. He smiled at her, and she smiled back. He knew she hated that name.
“I’m 45,” Helen announced. Death nodded without sound.
“But I have lived.” She declared for Death. He did not need her declaration, so he said nothing.
She had. It was not fancy and she would always be poor. But she was rich in love. In the ways they said and more. She had been loved.
Helen had loved, too. It had not been easy on her bones. They were sweet at first and Helen did not like the way she looked for so long…her beauty was tucked away, and yet Death made her relinquish it.
“What will you say to them?” Death asked her. Helen could measure her life in things she should have said.
Rains she should have walked in.
Sunlight she should have bathed in.
Beatings she should have prevented.
She wanted to say, I’m sorry, but there was no one to offer the words to.
“Will they be alright without me,” she asked Death. Death was an old friend and would answer her truthfully.
“No,” Death responded.
Teresa would unravel and would never reach 46.
Lamar would never be one of them.
Nicole would be ground into the hard road, but she would eventually out.
Terence. Terence would disappear, the sweet light that she knew would flicker and it would out. He would sleep for many years. He would miss her with a numbing grief, a blind, desperate longing for that which would be lost.
But he would out, too. Not unscarred, but he would not leave the world untraveled. In this Helen found solace.
She did not ask for an easy road. She wanted a road wide enough for a companion, and peace at the end of the journey.
Hours later Helen found herself cradled in Death’s arms, missing them. She gazed over Death’s shoulders, her promise, “I’ll be on my way” still warming the air where she left it. Death paused and stared down at her, silently asking.
She nodded, once, and with the confidence of old friends, met her eternity.