On Monday, I sent in my second packet of MFA work, including a short story about a boy, set in the 1930’s, who was drowned in the canal by a dog. I can’t make this stuff up—this premise, it was born from a newspaper headline—an instance of tragedy in Brockport’s history.
On Monday, I went to my parents’ house after dropping the packet behind the royal blue postal door, so blue I trusted the envelope would make it to my advisor. I sipped at a cup of Mulligatawny with my mother before I was to head off to pick up my two boys from my in-laws, who take care of them during most days that I work.
Before long, the house was crumbling beneath news of my cousin’s death. He had drowned in the canal that afternoon after wandering away from school.
Since, I have only been able to think about him. I haven’t seen him in years. He and his brother were both developmentally disabled, and though I know one from the other only by the shades of their hair and their ages, I knew nothing of them as people. And now.
Everything I know about him is from a news report. I can tell you this: he was at a school for special needs a town over that also bordered the canal. It had been his first day of school. His first bus-ride at 20 years old, to a school on the canal, a quaint school in a quaint village on a sweet blue-bell sunny day. And now.
That night, the news reporter who visited my parents’ house to get the story, apologized to me for my loss because the people he should have apologized to were so stricken that they could hardly breathe let alone hear a thing between their sobs.
I told the reporter it was okay. That I wasn’t close to him. But it wasn’t okay for any of us. Not even the people who watched the news. And it wasn’t okay for his parents.
My father talked to the news reporters on the deck he built when I was five and had just moved to our home. He told them he wouldn’t want to appear on camera and that my mother, for sure, would not want to be on camera. The reporters scribbled on pads the way my students do when responding to a prompt—chasing words with their pencils as though they were running away. I know the feeling.
The first reports had my cousin walking out of the building towards the canal, the officers investigating whether the accident was intentional.
My cousin was twenty, but with the capabilities of a five-year-old. My son is three. My cousin was twenty, and he was five.
The five o’clock news broadcasted that he had walked to the canal from his school, just yards away. Also, that a passer-by pulled him out of the canal and tried to resuscitate him. Also, that the aids found him about the same time, that they didn’t know how to administer CPR. The man who helped him, a face now more vivid to me having seen him on television than my own cousin’s, said he couldn’t sleep with the thought of the boy’s face. I couldn’t sleep either, but I can’t say I could picture his face. I wish I could.
Truthfully, the premise of a boy drowning in the canal had kept me awake since I’d started writing that one story, which was a month ago.
Now, it is a different day. The premise has changed. The stakes are real.
My father and mother have told me three times when the funeral plans are. They have told me my grandmother is as okay as she can be after hearing the news. My grandfather has only suggested they make sure my grandmother is okay.
Last night, my father texted the family that he loves us all, that parents should not outlive their children, that he has felt this in the past few days. We all thought we knew it before.
My doctor asked if I felt my story had “called it.” If I could write about anything lighter. I said, “yes.” And “no.”
I read the news reports about my cousin from all the local outlets, watched an interview of the man who tried to save my cousin. My cousin, who had dark hair and was twenty and because he was my cousin, I was sad to admit that I didn’t know him more, that I couldn’t know him more, anymore.
In one report, it said he liked Transformers and wrestling. So now I know that, too.
For the past few months, I have been studying newspapers from Brockport’s history, for information about a would-be serial killer, a dog drowning a boy in the canal, a plane crash, and tornado taking the life of one person and damaging just one house. I have been reading true accounts and the paper has been barrier enough for me to keep it separate from my own life.
I was told when I was a student, and now I continue to tell my students, that a reader should be able to picture the words they read as they read it. I read these reports again and again, but still, I cannot find my cousin’s face.
It’s true that “these things happen.” It’s true that we turn to some sort of fact to make sense of things that are too close to believe, even. Even now. Even as they happen before our very eyes.
Donate if you can, but prayers are just as important.
- BOCES student drowns in Erie Canal (wivb.com)