I was there when she died.
We huddled in the living room, her children and me. Little Noah and Nate curled in my lap, neither quite old enough to realize what was going on. Joshua destroyed everything he could get his hands on, as if by tearing down the world around him he could tear down the reality he was facing. Sarah, the oldest at ten, clung to me as if I was the only steady thing left in the world. And then there was me, the babysitter, sitting with tears streaming down my face and prayers running through my head, as I tried to comfort them.
We waited, not knowing that fate had already decided. Mrs. Brown wasn't getting better. She wasn't coming home.
Neither Mr. or Mrs. Brown had any extended family to help and it was summer vacation, so I stayed. I cooked. I cleaned. I helped with the funeral arrangements. I potty trained Nate. I stroked Sarah's hair as she cried. I convinced Joshua that breaking things wouldn't bring Mommy back. I even spent an evening drinking with Mr. Brown while we reminisced about Mrs. Brown. When my classes began to loom on the horizon, I helped Mr. Brown go in search of a nanny. But, for a few months, I was mother and assistant, therapist and friend. A mistake, perhaps, but a well intentioned one.
A generous person would say that the kids were grieving and acting out. I am not that generous. They'd been a handful before and, since their mother's death, they were terrors. They churned through nannies but, I was always there, in between classes, to mop up the chaos and help fill in the gap between the old and the new.
Then came Jackie, a nanny who finally brought order to chaos. She was steady and kind and it didn't take long for all of us to realize her only real flaw was that she wasn't me.
So, at Jackie and Mr. Brown's request, I excused myself from their lives. I stopped dropping by for visits. I stopped babysitting on Jackie's days off. I let Mr. Brown tell them that I was too busy with school to come by. Sarah and I talked from time to time until Jackie caught her complaining to me and asked me not to answer her calls anymore. So, I didn't.
That didn't stop her from calling. She called in tears when a classmate said her mom went to Hell because she was an atheist. She called in tears on her mother's birthday. She called in tears on her own birthday. A few times, I checked my voicemail only to hear quiet, incoherent sobs. Every time, I cried. Every time, I dutifully called Mr. Brown to ask if I could call her back. The answer was always no.
The last time she called, she apologized for whatever she had done to make me stop talking to her and she begged me to call her back. When I called Mr. Brown the next day, he didn't answer. I left a message saying that Sarah had called again and I would really like to speak with her.
It was a week later before he called me back and it was to ask me to speak at Sarah's funeral. The evening she'd called, she'd taken all the pills in his medicine cabinet, including his sleeping pills. He told me she drifted, silently and painlessly, into eternal sleep. I found out later from Jackie that she choked on her own vomit when her body try to reject all the different medicines. I suppose Mr. Brown thought the other version would be easier on me and I suppose Jackie thought I already knew. It didn't matter. Nothing can make an eleven year old's suicide any better or worse.
I stare out at the small gathering, dressed in an itchy black sweater, the only black dress clothes I had. Noah and Nate huddle close to a crying Jackie. Joshua glares angrily at everything, especially me. Mr. Brown is just... blank. I begin to talk. I speak of the time Sarah and Joshua coated the cat in honey and set it loose on the unsuspecting household. I speak of teaching Sarah to add in binary and how she confused her second grade teacher with it. I have more stories. I have a thousand stories of happiness and love and laughter but remembering the final one closes my throat and I can't go on.
I return to my seat as Joshua's eyes blaze into me. I don't think he's going to forgive me.
I may never forgive myself.
I wasn't there when she died.