Authors: Victoria Christopher Murray
After a while, Miriam inhaled a deep breath and Michellelee and I pulled back. But not too much, because if she started crying again, I wanted to be right there.
“This doesn't even feel real,” Miriam said.
“I know.” Michellelee reached for Miriam's hand. “It doesn't feel real to me either.”
I took Miriam's other hand, but said nothing. Not that I had to; we were all so close that most of the time, no words were needed.
“Oh, God!” Miriam said suddenly and swung her legs over the side of the bed.
“What's wrong?” Michellelee and I spoke at the same time.
“I've got to get the boys.”
“Jamal went to get them, remember?” I said.
Her brows bunched together, and then she nodded. “I guess I forgot. I'm a bit confused.”
If it had been me, I would've been a lot more than confused. I ran my hand over Miriam's hair, which had been smoothed back into a bun, exposing the patch of white hair along the left side of her forehead.
“What am I going to tell them?” Miriam whispered, and her tone let me know that new tears weren't far away.
“Don't worry,” I said. “We're going to help you. Jamal and I.”
“And me,” Michellelee piped in.
Miriam nodded. “Okay.” She paused. “But I still don't know what we're going to say. Especially to Junior. He was Chauncey's shadow, you know.” She sobbed. “He wanted to grow up to be just like his dad.”
I leaned forward to let Miriam fall against me once again.
Michellelee said, “Miriam, please don't cry,” even though tears were streaking down her cheeks. “We're here. Remember, we're the Red, White, and Blue,” she added, referring to the name some guy had given us at a frat party our sophomore year. The guy was drunk and the name had stuck.
Miriam sniffed and looked from me to Michellelee. “We've been through a lot together.”
“We have,” I said.
Miriam said, “I've known you guys half my life. And you've always been there for me.”
“Just like you've always been there for us,” I said.
“WellÂ .Â .Â . not always.” Miriam looked down and away from me.
“That was a long time ago,” I said, knowing exactly what Miriam was talking about. The thing that almost made me quit our friendship. When she had lost her mind when I told her that I was interested in Jamal.
But even though we'd come close to turning from friends to enemies, we'd worked through it, exactly the way women who were meant to be best friends for life were supposed to.
“Yeah, and we've had a lot more ups than downs,” Michellelee said, wanting to shift the conversation away from bad memories.
“Yes,” I said. “We graduated together.”
“And started our careers together,” Michellelee added.
“Or in my case,” Miriam said, “started my family.” She shook her head. “You guys were always there.”
“That's what sisters are for,” Michellelee and I said together.
After a moment of silence, I said, “We've done everything together, so we're not going to leave you now, Miriam. You can count on us.”
There was a quick knock on the door and Jamal stepped in. I breathed deeply, with relief, wondering if I would do that every time I saw my husband. Though I always knew Jamal's job put him in daily danger, that was never my concern. I'd decided long ago that there were only two things I could do about my husband's job: I could worry or I could pray. I wasn't going to waste my time doing both. So I'd chosen prayer, believing that involving God was far better for my soul and my sanity. Once that decision was made, every day I would send up a prayer of protection when Jamal left home and then give a prayer of thanksgiving when he returned twenty-four hours later.
But now, seeing Jamal, and experiencing that deep feeling of relief, made me wonder if my heart had changed. Would I now be filled with fear?
“Hey,” Jamal said, looking at me with a slight smile, like he was glad to see me, too. He hugged me, though our embrace lasted for
only a second. Then he squeezed Michellelee's hand before he knelt in front of Miriam. “The boys are here,” he said softly.
Miriam asked, “Did you tell them?”
There was a bit of hope in Miriam's voice. As if she hoped Jamal had already delivered the news.
“No.” He shook his head. “I thought you'd want to do that.” Then he rephrased his words. “I thought you should be the oneÂ .Â .Â . to tell them.”
Miriam nodded. “ButÂ .Â .Â . I don't know howÂ .Â .Â .”
Before she could finish, Jamal took her hands in his. “We're here, we'll tell them together.”
The hope, the doubt, the fear, the pain that was all wrapped together in those two words broke my heart into a million little pieces.
“Of course,” Jamal said, then he glanced over his shoulder at me and I nodded.
“Thank you,” she said. “I couldn't do this by myself.”
“Don't worry,” Jamal said. “It'll beâ” He stopped short of saying it would be fine, then added, “We're all here for you.” Jamal rose to his feet. “I'm going to get back out there. The boys think I picked them up because their dad had to work an extra shift.”
“Okay. I need a minute to make sure that I don't bust out crying the moment I see them.”
“Take your time.” Jamal moved toward the door.
“I'm going with you,” Michellelee said. “I'll see if the boys want a snack or something.”
“That's a good idea,” Miriam said. “Thanks.”
“Right after that, though, I have to leave. I have to get to the studio.” Her apology was inside her tone. “Is that okay?”
“Of course,” Miriam said. “You have to go to work. Life goes onÂ .Â .Â . right?”
Michellelee hugged her.
“Are you going to be reporting on the fire?” Miriam asked.
She nodded. “It's the lead story. But I'll come right back here after I get off.” Michellelee rubbed Miriam's back for an extra moment, then hugged me before she followed Jamal out of the bedroom.
I waited until the door was closed before I told Miriam, “You can do this. And it's okay if you cry.”
“I have to be strong for the boys. They're going to be devastated.”
“I know. But like Jamal said, he and I and Michellelee will be here for you and the boys. And you know, our pastor will be here, and Chauncey's family, and so many other people who love you and the boys.”
Miriam's brown eyes were glassy, but even behind her tears, I saw her relief. As if she was just beginning to understand that she was not alone. “Okay. I can do this.”
I reached for her hand and helped her stand. She swayed just a bit, as if she wasn't standing on solid ground. I tightened my grasp. “I got you,” I whispered.
“Thank you.” Then after taking just two steps, she turned and hugged me, wrapping her arms around my waist since I was so much taller than she was. “I love you, Em,” she said.
Okay, that was it. I wasn't going to make it. All I wanted to do was sit right there in the middle of the bedroom and bawl like a baby. But I blinked rapidly, to keep back my tears and hold back my grief. “I love you, too, Miriam. Jamal and I love you and the boys. And we're here with you. Forever.”
“Forever,” she whispered as she stepped away from our embrace.
“Forever,” I repeated, and then added, “No matter what.”
When the edges of Miriam's lips twitched into the smallest of smiles, I told her, “I promise.” Then, I took her hand and led her out of the bedroom.
hen people looked at Emily, Michellelee, and me, no one ever said that I was the prettiest; that was a toss-up between Emily and Michellelee. Or that I was the smartest, another toss-up that probably didn't include me. I'm not putting myself down, I'm just being honest. I know my weaknesses, but I also know my strengths. And one of my strengths, one thing that I could do better than Emily and Michellelee: I could act my butt off.
I'd been part of the Black Thespians at USC and always received resounding ovations at the end of my performances. Whether I was Lady Macbeth during our summer Shakespeare festivals or Dorothy in our own rendition of
, I was respected by the audiences and by my peers.
So many told me that I should take my dreams and my skills to Hollywood, though I never took them seriously. I mean, yeah, I was talented enough, but Hollywood had little to do with talent. It was all about how you looked. Not only am I African American, I am a short, stocky black girl who is a realist. There was no place for me in that superficial industry and I wasn't about to go on auditions and get my feelings hurt.
But today, at this moment, I was using every bit of the talent I had as I faced my sons.
“Mom, where were you?” my youngest son, Stevie, said as I stepped into the kitchen.
“Uncle Jamal told you she was taking a nap,” Mikey, my middle child, answered before I could say a word.
Stevie glared at his brother before he turned to me. “You were sleeping in the middle of the day?”
“That's what a nap is, dummy!”
I was just about to scold Mikey, but Jamal jumped in.
“Hey, Mikey, you're the big bro, remember? Remember what I told you? You don't want to talk to your brother like that.”
Mikey poked out his bottom lip and even though he sat at the table all the way across the room, I could see his long lashes as he lowered his eyes. The kind of eyelashes that women paid for. Eyelashes just like his father's.
A sob rose up in me, but I held it back as I took in all of my sons. My two youngest boys sat at the kitchen table with their schoolbooks and an opened package of graham crackers in front of them, while Junior (who hadn't looked up yet) sat at one of the barstools at the counter.
The scene unfolded like just another ordinary end-of-school day. This was what it would look like when Chauncey picked up the boys and then sat with them as they did their homework.
It wasn't until I saw Jamal staring at me that I realized that my bottom lip was trembling. I sucked it between my teeth, but I couldn't stop the rest of my body from shaking.
“Uh, boys,” Jamal said, though his eyes stayed on me. “Can you come with me and your mom into the living room?”
I hadn't even thought about where I was going to tell them this news. The living room was definitely better than the kitchen.
“Can I finish my homework?” Stevie asked. “Â 'Cause last year, I got all A's and Mikey didn't.”
“That's 'cause you were only in the second grade. Everybody gets A's in the second grade!”
“Boys!” I said, then reached out my hand toward them. “We'll get to your homework in a little bit. Come on; I want to talk to you.”
My three sons stood and marched toward me, the youngest, Stevie, to the oldest, Junior, looking almost like triplets. I had been pregnant for three years in a row, as if once Chauncey and I started having children, we just couldn't stop. And it had been fine with me. Junior had been born in March 2002; Mikey, the following March; and finally, Stevie, the March after that. I would've kept going; it was Chauncey who thought three was enough. Now, I wished that I'd had ten more of his children.
It wasn't until I turned around and bumped into Emily that I remembered that she was there.
She hugged Stevie, then Mikey, as they came out of the kitchen, but when Junior walked out, he stopped and took a long look at Emily, then Jamal, then me.
“What's wrong?” he asked. “I can tell something happened.”
To be honest, I was kinda surprised it took Junior that long to figure it out. My ten-year-old was supersensitive, so intuitiveâjust like his father.
I only had a second to decide the best response. “Yes,” I said, “something did happen.” In that instant, I imagined Chauncey kissing me this morning as he walked through the front door and I had to take a breath to keep the shaking out of my voice.
“Is it Dad?” Junior asked.
I looked down and away and moved toward the sofa. I didn't want to say anything until the three of them were sitting down. “Come in here, Junior,” I said in my no-nonsense tone.
He did as I asked, and just seconds later, we were all in place. I don't know how the seating got arranged: I was on the couch next to Jamal, and Stevie was next to me. Mikey and Junior sat right across from us on the love seat. And Emily stood behind them.
“Mom,” Junior said. This time, he was the one with the no-nonsense tone. “What's going on?”
There was no need to prolong this. “You're right, Junior. It's your dad.”
I watched my son swallow hard and the tears shot instantly to my eyes. “There was a fire today.”
“Did Dad get hurt?” Junior asked before I could get out any more.
“Did he die?”
I lowered my head and sobbed.
Jamal answered for me. “Yes, Junior.” Then he looked at Mikey and Stevie. “I am so sorry. But your father died in the fire today.”
“Daddy died?” Mikey cried, and Stevie joined him.
I held my youngest in my arms and motioned for Mikey and Junior to join me. Only Mikey leaped over to me.
“Why did Daddy have to die, Mommy?” Stevie asked, as he cried.
“I don't know, baby.”
As I held my two sons, I stared at my oldest still sitting across from me, not moving, not crying. It didn't even seem like he was breathing.
Jamal said, “Are you all right, Junior?”
My son asked, “Did you go to the fire, too, Uncle Jamal?”
“Were you there when Daddy died?”
Jamal nodded. “I wasn't in the exact room. Your dad went in to try to save some of the kids who were trapped in the back of the building. He got them out, but he didn't make it. I was in another
part of the school, but when they told me your dad was in there, I tried to go back in to help him.”