all I know



I know that it was Autumn.


I know it could not have been summer, because my oldest brother Steve, then seven, was at school. I know it was not winter, because the river was not frozen, and it was still possible to swim.


I know my mother was pregnant with my older sister, Amy, who would be born the following March. She was home with my brother Brian, who was then almost two. My father was at work, but nearby. My brother Andrew and I were not yet born. These are the things I know. But I have so many other questions.


Had my mother taken something out of the freezer that morning and set it in the sink to thaw?

Had she made the beds?

Was Brian, then just a toddler, just up from his nap? Or just about to take one?

What did she do with him all day?

What do any of us do with them all day?


Did Mom let Brian help her push the vacuum?

Did she give him his own rag to "clean" with, while she wiped his sticky handprint from the glass door?

(What if she had not wiped the handprint off the glass door? What if she had had to find it, after?)


Did they chat while they worked? Or sing?

Or was she mostly quiet with him - companionable but quiet - the way she was with me?

(Put another way, was she mostly quiet with me because of what happened with him? Or was it her nature?)


Did she give him a pan of soapy water and a wooden spoon to occupy him while she paid the bills? Or a shoebox filled with wooden spools for him to stack and knock over?

Was my brother dressed in clothes and shoes?

Or just a diaper, which would have been cloth, since this was 1949?


Was the breeze blowing the tops of the pines across the river?

Had someone gone down to the dock to admire the pines, and the river?


Was it my father who went down to the dock, to fix something? Or my mother?

Why would my mother go to the dock?

My mother only went outside to read, or to garden.

Was it someone else who went to the dock?

The dock repairman?

Or a guest, who strolled down to admire the river, and the pines, and didn’t think about latching the gate?


I know almost nothing; I know this: a phone rang. There were no cellular or cordless phones, so it was a landline, the handset attached to the base by a cord. My big brother Steve was at school, my toddler brother Brian was home, my mother was pregnant with Amy, my father was at work, nearby, my brother Andrew and I were not yet born.


Who called?

Did the person who called ever find out that they were the one, the person who called, The Call?

Was it the knitting shop, calling to say that the number six needles my mother had ordered had come in?

Was it my mom's mom, calling to chat?

My Dad, calling to check in on his family midday?

The phone rang and my mother answered it, and the breeze blew the tops of the white pines across the river.


Maybe it was a friend in trouble.

Maybe it was the bank, and there was a discrepancy in her account and my mother needed to pull out some files and confirm some transactions, and she got caught up, and lost track of time.

Maybe Brian saw a butterfly go past, and reached up and opened the door to the terrace.

Or was the door propped open to the breeze, propped open with confidence because the yard was fenced and the gate to the dock was always latched?


Did my mother realize how long she had been on the phone while she was still on it, and quickly apologize, and get off? Or was it not until she said goodbye and brought her mind back to the room that she realized he was gone?


I know what she did.


I know what she did because I have done it; we have all done it, looked for a child who was here a second ago, heart in throat but sure he is right here somewhere, hiding under his bed or under the table, calling, normally at first…Sam? Then with a growing anxiety…I-vy?? Trying to talk yourself out of your growing panic, your armpits damp… WILL??? Terror now taking you by the throat…BEN! HONEY! COME OUT!! MOMMY IS LOOKING FOR YOU!


But I don’t know what my mother did after that.

I don’t know what my mother did after that because I have been blessed each time I was careless or answered a phone or was distracted, blessed to find my child, to fold him, (and her, and him, and him again) into my arms with a loud exhale and a silent prayer of thanks.


My mother wasn’t so lucky.


She must have looked in all the rooms of their small house first - the living room where he and she were when she took the call, the tiny galley kitchen, her bedroom, his nursery. It was a small modern house my father built by hand; it had to become clear to her within minutes that Brian wasn’t there. Then she had to have noticed the door, the open door, and flown outside, calling, calling- or was she screaming now? – racing across the yard, the desolate still yard where nothing was moving and no sound was coming, with the pines blowing and the river flowing, the river.


When did she think of the river?


Could she see from where she stood that the gate to the dock was open, or did she have to run to it, and a put her hand on upon it, please God let it be closed.

Did my mother pray?

Did she have to give the gate a tiny a push to see that it was unlatched, had been left unlatched, and was easy to push through? How did my mother not pass out now? Or literally die from the surge of toxic anxiety chemicals coursing through her?


Adrenaline keeps my mother alive; she pushes through the gate and runs out onto the dock shouting Brian’s name over and over into the deadly river. The pines blow, no one answers.


When did she call my father? What did she say? How long did it take him to arrive? What did she do in the meantime? Did she look in the tool shed? Under the car? No, there was no car; Dad had the only car.


When my father arrived, how much longer did my parents search before my father went to the dock, took off his shoes and pants, pulled his tee shirt over his head, and dove in the cold river?


Was there a current?

How long did he have to swim before he found the body?

Did my father have to swim against the current, upstream, holding his dead son in his arms?


When he reached the dock, did he have to tread water, and heave the body up onto the empty dock, then hoist himself up, dripping? Or was my mother standing on the dock, watching and waiting? Did my father hand Brian’s dead body up to her? Did they try to resuscitate him, or was it clear that he was gone? Did they wrap him in the clothes my father had left on the dock?


Did they bring their baby to their bed, and lay him between their bodies, and try to warm him, so his lips would no longer be blue?


A phone rang.

My mother answered it.

Someone left the gate open.

My brother drowned.

My father found the body and brought him back.


It's all I know.


If this story resonates with you, and you would like to share, please find links below.