You lay curled up in a fetal position on the last day of school, cradled on top of your son’s unfinished grave. You put him in the ground last February: on the north edge of the cemetery, five feet from the high school parking lot, straight across from the thirty yard line. The gravestone wasn’t set when spring’s daffodils climbed from hibernation. Your son’s grave marked by a football, his prom photo, an American flag, and his used football cleat. His death’s incomplete. When is a son dead?
I didn’t stop my car driving through the parking lot on the last day of school. No one did. I dropped off my boys at the middle school across the street and didn’t want your grief to jump into my back seat. What if your grief wouldn’t get out of my car?
The black cemetery fence had to be removed so family could stand in the parking lot, on solid ground, as Jordan was buried. I know that fence factoid because someone posted it on Facebook. We share tornado updates and damaged roof reports on Facebook. Prairie moms upload pictures of First Communion, band concerts, track meets. We post tabby cats in kitchen sinks and ex-spouses with new wives. Here’s what you posted in February, moments after your nineteen-year old choked on his vomit with a needle in his vein: “Noooooooo, Noooooooo, Nooooooo!”
We all read it, pierced by your public scream, plunging us into a mother’s infinite anguish. A family’s trauma. A community stunned. If it could happen in your family . . .
Your Facebook page was quickly punctuated with limiting emoticons. The broken heart was the emoji of choice. You started using it to represent Jordan’s absent presence. It has evolved as part of your red-ribbon ‘Be Brave’ campaign to remember Jordan and fight the junk that choked out his life. Your Catholic sanctity, your family’s deep roots in town and your years of nursing contaminated bones in hospital–none of that was enough to stop a nineteen-year old from hooking up with a girl and connections.
What does heroin feel like, flooding the veins? Is Lou Reed still the poet of choice? Did it make Jordan feel like a man? Smack’s cheap and easy out here on the prairie, cut with foreign chemicals: quinine, lactose, mannitol, laundry detergent, baking soda. Bad junk. Not like Burroughs’ junk. Jordan might be alive if the junk was pure, like it used to be, back in the day. When was the day?
A minute ago, Jordan was alive on our thirty-yard line, intercepting touchdown passes from rival Arcola High School’s quarterback. The win was posted on Facebook: Tuscola 36–Arcola 28. The exact meaning of Tuscola is disputed. One pro-Tuscola source claims it means warrior, or warrior people. Jordan led our Warriors to victory over the Purple Riders of Arcola. Ola by itself, however, is Cherokee, possibly Chocktaw, for cry. Tuscola means warrior cry.
Jordan’s Warrior teammates cried, staring at his reconstituted body. Nineteen-year olds don’t know how to act at a visitation. They walked in, glanced towards the casket, jarred by the raw pasty plastic sensation, then recoiled back, closer to the much safer video loop of your family trips to the beach, Jordan’s annual football statistics, and his broken grandmother–the town matriarch whose Raggedy Ann-red hair was made manifest in Jordan’s warm freckles.
My house sits a block behind the funeral home. I stared for hours from behind glass, waiting with my two unfinished sons, watching your family trickle into the funeral home that cold soggy Thursday. I was scared to walk over because your grief might cling to me, like Venom Symbiote, use me as a host, feed on my fear. Jordan was alive on Sunday, your grief unconsummated, unborn. You didn’t know he was with his girl, shooting up, queuing up for the final procession. I came late to the visitation on Thursday. You were downstairs gnawing on ham salad sliders from the Altar Society. You must be starving, I thought. I was waiting for you. I had no language. I just was.
“This sucks. It just sucks,” you said, holding me.
I held you back. I felt the Venom.
“It sucks. It sucks.” I said.
It’s winter now and the fence stands unbroken on the edge of the cemetery. But there’s still no heavy stone marking Jordan’s grave. Stone is too permanent for this one, your unfinished son.
Amy Penne lives, writes, and works out on the prairie of East Central Illinois. She earned a PhD from the University of Illinois and teaches English at Parkland College in Champaign. Her work appears in KYSO Flash, an upcoming anthology from Creative Nonfiction‘s In Fact books, and on her favorite podcast, The Drunken Odyssey.