On the long, winding descent of the country road I would gear up, invigorated. I’d fly by farms and cattle, ending up on the edge of the city at the software company I worked for to start the day feeling righteous and substantial—for a marketer, anyway.
On this hill was a manhole, the halfway point. For a year's worth of days it was my ritual to ride over its cover with that satisfying kathunk-thunk. One morning, the familiar dark circle came up fast. At the last second I startled at the sudden presence of my grandmother, a cyclist until her eighties who had died a few years back. Not a voice exactly but I knew it to be her, and two urgent words:
I heeded the warning, thinking to myself why not? and swerved, missing the manhole by inches, looking down to prove my own silliness as I passed at the speed of a car. It was uncovered, unmarked. The gaping hole would have swallowed the front end of my mountain bike, pitching my face and neck into the asphalt edge at a high velocity.
Squeezing the brake levers hard I slowed, jumped off and walked back, gaped at what might have been my doom and rode the rest of the way to work to call the municipal road crew, thoroughly rattled.
I lay in bed awake and it came to me as it sometimes does: I still can’t believe I had twins, that they came early, that I have this scar, that my babies were in incubators, fed through tubes, cut open by surgeons, that one of them died in my arms.
The dark bit that feeds off the sadness says look at what happened, look and amplifies the memory of a lifeless Liam on my lap, forces me to replay and recoil and wrap myself around the ache. But last night a soft, affectionate voice cut through like the ringing of a bell. Stop it, mom.
I hesitated, toyed with pretending it was real. The voice said again, firmly: No, mom. Not tonight. Just sleep... and the unwelcome vision was blocked as though a figure stood in front of it with arms crossed.
Sometimes he is a grown man and he walks with me, full of patience. Or he is Ben’s parallel, gurgling and sighing contentedly, letting me know he rests without words. Or he is a teenager, lanky and full of promise. Sighing affectedly, newly sure of himself, protective beyond his years as he was last night. He comes to me as everything he should have been. Or sometimes he doesn’t come at all and there is just silence and memory, and I am shaken, scolding myself for being hopelessly romantic.
But when I do hear him, I listen. Why not?