Under The Smoke

I’m standing in my kitchen surrounded by toy cars. There are dishes in the sink and an overflowing laundry hamper by the basement stairs and a layer of dust coating the venetian blinds. I’m thinking, What slob lives here? I can’t own this mess right now. The air is full of thick smoke. My son is playing at my feet.

I should wash the dishes. I should dump the dirty laundry into the washing machine and use the empty basket to round up the toys. The blinds can wait. The smoke stings my eyes and I frown. Is something on fire?

“Mom!” I feel little hands on my kneecaps. “Tickle me!” He squeals as I pull him up into my arms. He pulls his elbows into his ribs and squeezes his eyes shut, laughing so hard he folds right in half. I laugh too.

But even while I’m laughing, I’m trying not to inhale. I’m trying not to picture something. I’m trying not to close my eyes, because I know it’s there on the backs of my eyelids. I want to project my son’s grinning face onto every wall in my head instead. I set him down and he flops to the floor to retrieve a car. He’s oblivious and I love it.

There’s been a death in my family; I got the call late last night. Today, the day after the death, is full of thoughts and feelings and conversations about the death. It hangs around my head and face and I can’t ignore it. I can’t help but bring it into every interaction I have in really clunky, awkward ways, talking about him or about his funeral or about death in general. I don’t think I want to talk about it but I can’t stop myself. Maybe it’s the only thing I want to talk about. I’m frustrated that everyone doesn’t inherently know something big has happened. Doesn’t the world seem different today? Don’t you wonder why?

The only person I haven’t told is my two-year-old son.

He wouldn’t understand, for one thing. He doesn’t know what “died” means. I don’t know how to explain it to him, so I don’t. I stand and hug my husband, I stand and talk on the phone, I stand and check for updates on funeral plans and preparations, then I crouch down on the kitchen floor where there is no such thing as death.

They tell you when you’re in a burning house to get close to the floor. Hot air rises, cold air sinks. Get under the smoke. That’s what this feels like. The smoke of adulthood and real life are up there, and you grow up into it. My son hasn’t yet.

I lay down on my belly, and grab a car too. “Hey, buddy,” I say. “Can I play with you?”

“Yeah, Mom!” he says. He stops what he’s doing and squints at me. “You sad, Mom?”

“Yeah,” I say, impressed at his perceptiveness.

“Need a kiss, Mom?”

“Yeah,” I say.

He leans in and plants one on my nose. “All better,” he says. Because down here, it’s that simple. He tickles my arm, trying to make me laugh again, and I do.

He’s giving me a gift, but he doesn’t know it - this happens often. Today, the gift is the ability to slide down out of the adult world for a moment into a space where I can breathe, where everything is easy and nothing is wrong - or if it is, it can be solved with a quick kiss from the person who loves you more than anyone else. Where the only two people in the whole world are me and my son and the only question is, “What should we play next?” It’s safe to shut my eyes down here; all I see are chubby fingers pushing a toy car across the floor.

Written by Elena Krause.