The first winter after we moved from Ohio to Portsmouth, a local high school senior lost control of his car on a winding road as he drove to school with his sister. I learned of the accident only because there were roadblocks near the village green on the day of the funeral, and ashen-faced cops, probably only a year or two older than the boy, directing traffic.
Peverly Hill Road — where the accident occurred — is one of the pretty areas around here. At the top of the hill if you look west, is an old cemetery, and beyond the weathered, simple tombstone, a church steeple soars in the distance. I’ve driven around it for the last 10 years. When Jenny entered preschool, it was the route we took early each morning, sometimes stopping for a MacDonald burger along the way.
It was autumn when I first saw the mother. She knelt in the dirt next to the electric pole the boy had hit. She wore jeans and a sweatshirt, long hair tied back, hands working the earth. I knew instantly that it was her. I slowed my car down, worried — she wasn’t far off the side of the road and could easily be hit by a texting driver.
But I didn’t stop. I wanted to but I couldn’t. Her bowed head, those grasping hands seemed to exist on another plane, a scorched landscape of grief and sorrow that forced a shudder inside me. I had come so close to knowing that precise sense of grief. I wondered what I could say to her. I feared how she would look back at me, the grief in her eyes might reflect the one in my own. We both were parents who had children who we worried about — In a way that was so much different than others did. How would we even relate?
I braked for just a moment, almost wanting to stop. To say something to her. Tell her words that didn’t mean anything.
Instead, I pushed the pedal again. We continued on our way.
Month after month, I kept an eye out for the mother as I drove by Peverly Hill. On a number of occasions, I spotted her crouched by the electrical pole. But it wasn’t until early spring of 2018, when we passed a soft blur of yellow one morning, that I realized what she had been doing in that roadside dirt. Daffodils ringed the pole, encircling the spot where her son had passed away.
It has been years since those first shoots came above the earth. Today, all sorts of flowers now mark the spot. Years later as I pass by there, I keep an eye out for her, her grief lingering in my mind even as I drove by. At times during the first few years. I noticed her sitting one afternoon in a folding chair, her back to the road. Each winter, as the bulbs she plants in autumn, sleep in the earth, she strings tinsel around the pole, red and silver glitter hugging its circumference. Once during the snow, a nearby tree was festooned with Christmas lights, green and blue.
I try to understand parenthood and what death does in its wake — The living people that it snatches away. The carcasses that it leaves behind.
Our town has changed quite a bit in these years. More young families have moved up from the city — Telecommuting from Boston making possible a different kind of life. I am now one of them too. I see new parents sometimes. I know them from their SUV’s and station wagons, a whole new generation strapped into booster seats in the back.
They too, drive up Peverly Hill. They too, stop for MacDonald’s and coffee. It’s highly unlikely that they notice the one electrical pole set apart from the others —
Those soft yellow flowers blooming from its base.