Angel Band

042.Oh come angel band,

Come and around me stand,

Oh bear me away on your snow-white wings,

To my immortal home.

Ten years hadn’t lessened her pain much.  She still had the occasional nightmare with him in it.  When this happened, she would wake up and find her husband in bed at her side, a gentle reminder that the young man of her dreams had been gone for a decade.  She loved her husband more than she could have ever loved her fiancé, she admitted.  Her love for Tyler had been fun and romantic, while her love for Mark was strong and bittersweet.  She could not imagine what being married to Tyler for nine years would be like – would they have had children?  Would they still be married?  Would they live in the city or the suburbs?  Would she know him as well as she knew Mark?  Even though she was his second wife and they had only been married for seven years, Sally knew Mark well.  They were a close couple.  Every so often, they would retire to their own personal grief, and they respected this of each other.  At other times, each one would gently remind the other that now was not the time to grieve for lost spouses: they had a family to raise.

Amelia Wilkins was fifteen years old now – no longer the shy, bubbly kindergartener that Sally had first met on that tragic day.  Her curly pigtails and ribbons had been replaced by highlighted, forcibly- straightened hair and earrings.  Sometimes people wondered why she referred to such a young woman as “Mom,” for at thirty-two, Sally hardly seemed like one who would have had a child as a teenager.  As Amelia herself described her, Sally was “fun but straight-laced.”  There were times when Amelia choked on calling her stepmother “Mom,” and she never called her “Mommy.”  Christina was Amelia’s Mommy and Amelia made sure that everyone understood the difference.  Some of her high-school friends were surprised that she could refer to Mommy and Mom in the same sentence.  Amelia had lost her mother at the age of five and had latched onto her teacher as her new mother relatively easily.  Sally sometimes worried that her stepdaughter had not grieved enough for her mother.  Her sister-in-law reassured her that the little girl had spent months crying – after all, she had been a chipper little girl at school, but in those first months after her mother’s death, she had gone home to her aunt and uncle and had cried for the better part of the night.

Sally had three children of her own, although they tried hard as a family to keep from differentiating between who had who for a mother.  Amelia did not refer to her younger siblings as half-siblings.  For the little ones, Amelia was their big sister.  The older ones knew that she had a different Mommy only because they talked about Christina on special occasions.  When they had gone to the memorial service the previous year, a tourist had asked little Christopher if anyone in his family had died in the tragedy and he had replied: “My sister’s Mommy died.”  Although he was too young to understand, someday Sally would tell him that the man who might have been his father instead had died as well.  Sometimes, she wondered what Christopher Tyler Wilkins would have been like if he had been two different boys – one the son of Mark and Christina, the other the son of her and Tyler.  As he was, he was their wonderful little boy.  His birth had been the most glorious day of her life – and it had indeed taken all day, she remembered with a wince.

Now, she awoke in the early morning of the eleventh of September and slowly pulled herself out of bed, gently putting the bedding back into place before ambling to the window.  It was not light yet and her family was all still asleep, but she knew that she would only have nightmares if she dared try to close her eyes again.  There would be the ceremony at the new memorial that would be several hours long, but she would endure the day as she had to.  Mark and Amelia would help with the little ones.  They had a system worked out for family outings: Mark minded Christopher, Amelia minded Sophia, and Sally minded Paul.

Staring out the window, Sally thought back across the past decade of her life.  Ten years earlier, she had been a newly-minted kindergarten teacher.  Engaged to her college sweetheart, she had planned to be married the following summer at Tyler’s parents’ cottage.  Tyler had his new job that offered plenty of opportunity for advancement.  She had awoken that morning nervous about meeting her first class of students.  Back then, she had lived in an apartment with two other teachers.  They had all got up early to be ready for school.  She had barely noted anything else about the morning, other than it had been sunny.  Tyler phoned her that morning to wish her luck on her first day.  She had thanked him and told him to have a good day too, then she had told him that she had to run and that she would call him later that evening to tell him how the day had gone.  She took comfort in the fact that she had remembered to say that she loved him.

The following year, she had still been in that same apartment with her two fellow teachers.  Her mother had come to stay with her that night so that she would have support at the memorial service, but Sally had been unable to sleep, so she had spent the morning looking at photo albums and crying.  She had spent the whole of the previous year in mourning, not that she consciously had admitted it.  The one thing that she was glad about was that her faith had been renewed.  She went to church regularly and prayed daily.  She still did that now, but before the tragedy, she had been avoiding God with a passion.

That horrible morning nine years earlier had turned into the day that her relationship with Mark had begun.  He and Amelia came to the service and the little girl had run to give “Miss Hart” a hug.  Mark had apologised and said that she had missed her teacher over the summer.  Now that Amelia was no longer in Sally’s class, did she want to have dinner with him?  He had said almost exactly that, although granted, not immediately.  He had called her after the service to ask her, and admitted that he had not asked a woman out since high school.

Another two years passed before Mark and Sally were officially married, although they had not attended the memorial services together.  Both of those mornings had been much the same: Sally got up early, said a special prayer for Tyler, and went to a service and then to work.  The second year after the tragedy, she had avoided Mark altogether that day for fear of disrespecting Christina’s memory.  The third year, they had gone to her mother’s for dinner.  They married two months later, with Amelia as their flowergirl.  She was delighted to have a mom again, even if Sally could never replace her lost mommy.

The fourth anniversary of the tragedy was the first that found Sally waking up in a queen-sized bed next to her husband.  They had moved into a new apartment after their marriage, so as to have as few ghosts as possible in their new life together.  Amelia slept soundly – she always slept soundly, Sally remembered.  Only her sister-in-law attested to the fact that her niece could sleep fitfully, so Sally took it as a sign that her stepdaughter was content and comfortable with her new mother and home.  A gigantic photograph of Christina and Amelia adorned the wall of the girl’s bedroom, while a smaller version was among the various family photographs in the dining room.  Both Christina and Tyler remained in their lives in photographs.  Later in their marriage, they would even go so far as to put up images of their former loved ones with them.  When Amelia had to make a scrapbook for school, her teacher had wondered why she included a photograph of her stepmother with another man.  The teacher had thought that she was expressing resentment, but Amelia had simply wanted to show that if this lovely young man had not died, Sally would not have been her mom, and she would not have had her little brother.

What had been most bothersome about that morning six years in the past had been that Sally was dreadfully sick.  Being pregnant did nothing to cure her inability to sleep late.  They had not told Amelia yet, since Sally was only fifteen weeks along, but the nine-year-old was already suspicious.  She was hoping to have a younger brother or sister – her mother had not wanted to have two children close together, and they had only begun to consider a second child when the towers fell.  Even before Sally and Mark had married, Amelia had been asking them if they were going to have more babies.  When Sally had told her husband that she was pregnant, he had been overjoyed, but she was mostly relieved.  Another child would make it easier for them to be a family: the new baby would have a mother, a father, and a sister.  Sally was sure that she would feel less like the replacement wife.

“You are not a replacement,” Mark reassured her.  “None of our babies will be, either.  But I’m glad you reminded me – I must never think of you that way.”

On they went in their marriage, dancing with the ghosts of the past.

Christopher Tyler Wilkins had been a fussy baby, but he had slept through his first memorial service.  The fifth anniversary was one of the years from which Sally did not have a vivid memory of the morning at all.  She had been too busy with her son, who was at the age where sleeping through the night was only an elusive goal.  Only Amelia had slept for more than a couple of hours, so she was bright-eyed and attentive.  Her parents had been concerned mostly with staying awake.  Many people wanted to see the baby.  For the first time in five years, the day felt vaguely ordinary, as though it really were just a date on a calendar rather than a symbol.  Amelia did not want to talk to anyone at the service because they asked too many questions.  She wished that her mother had died in something less conspicuous.

“Daddy, I don’t want to keep burying Mommy.  Can we not go next year, please?  Can we go to Auntie Katie’s and just have a big family dinner?”

So they did not go to any public memorial service the following year, which suited Sally fine because she was once again suffering from terrible morning sickness.  Going to dinner at Mark’s sister Katie’s had been torturous for her, but she felt that she could hardly complain when Katie was hosting a full-course turkey dinner while eight months pregnant.  In addition to the Wilkinses, Katie had her parents, her husband’s parents, and her cousin join them.  Now it was a tradition for Katie to host the Patriot Day Dinner, and in turn, Sally hosted Thanksgiving.

The seventh anniversary saw them having moved into a new apartment.  Mark wanted to have four bedrooms so that none of their children would yet have to share a bedroom: Amelia was a teenager, Christopher was the only boy, and Sophia was still a baby, he had reasoned.  Despite having two small children, Sally still taught at the same kindergarten when she was not on leave.  She loved that the children in her class were too young to care much about the tragedy.  They did not remember it firsthand and only a few of them had strong connections to it.  That year, they had discussed it only briefly before the children wanted to go back to playing games and learning letters.  To these children, there had never been a time when September was not a month of flag-waving.  They had never seen 110-storey towers collapse, or if they had through the miracle of video, they had not consciously recognised that amid the dust had been hundreds of people.  Sally could not understand why parents would let their young children watch such footage.  Amelia hated to watch it – although for the personal reason that watching her mother die repeatedly was too difficult.  Sally’s children were too young to watch, but she had no idea when would be a good age for them to do so.

Katie had given birth to her eldest daughter, Jessica, only a couple of months before her brother’s wife had been killed.  Christina had been Jessica’s godmother.  Once she had turned seven years old, Jessica had started to ask about her missing aunt.  This woman that looked vaguely like Amelia was present in many of her baby photos.  For a school project, she had made a collage about Christina.  Meanwhile, Sally tried to fill in as best she could for her predecessor, at least when it came to being her godmother at church.  That year, over the course of the turkey dinner at Katie’s, Jessica had calmly approached Sally and reported that this year would be her First Communion.  Would Sally be her godmother at the ceremony?  While the little girl had been calm, Sally had burst into tears on the drive home.

Christina Burke, always known as Chrissy, was Katie’s second daughter.  She had been born just over a year after her aunt’s death and was slightly self-conscious about her name.  While honouring her mysterious Aunt Christina was an understandable concept for her even at a young age, she felt that being called ‘Chrissy’ made her feel more like herself.  Whenever teachers or other adults called her by her full name, she was instantly reminded that she was named for someone else.  Katie sometimes regretted not calling her by her middle name; one of the many what-might-have-beens of the Wilkins-Burke clan was that Chrissy would have been Mary.  It was such a simple distinction, quite easily remedied later if Chrissy chose to go by Mary later in her life, but it was still a profound symbol for Katie and Chrissy.  When Jessica and Chrissy played Princesses, Chrissy always called herself “Princess Mary Elaine.”

Once eight years had passed since the tragedy and three years had passed since she had gone to a public service, Sally felt confident enough that she could attend a memorial service again.  For the first time, she went alone with her husband, while Amelia babysat her brother and sister.  They spent the whole afternoon together, having coffee and lunch as though they were dating again.  It felt as though they had a lot to discuss, and yet they hardly spoke a word about the anniversary.  The memorial service only reminded them that their entire relationship had been born from the ashes of two that were destroyed.  It was a constant reminder, but having the time alone felt unusual.  Amelia had been the cause of their meeting in the first place, as she had been in Sally’s class, and she had been an integral part of their courtship.  Initially, Sally had doubted whether or not Mark wanted her for a new wife as much as Amelia wanted her for a mother.  Sally’s mother had warned her numerous times to be careful.  It had taken a lot of convincing before Sally had successfully impressed upon her that Mark genuinely loved her.

Mark had not asked many questions about Tyler in the past few years.  In the beginning, they had discussed their loved ones quite a bit.  Since their marriage, however, they had few reasons to discuss him.  Christina was the more visible ghost in their household.  People could be forgiven for not realising that Sally had been engaged previously.  There was a picture in their dining room from her engagement: Sally in a flowery tank-top and jeans embracing the equally casually-dressed Tyler on the gazebo that they would have served as their wedding venue.  It served as the only obvious indication to visitors that Tyler had existed.  Sally thought of how different they would have been – they were barely more than teenagers in the photograph.  She was hardly recognisable in that picture now, though she was still young-looking.  The girl on the gazebo was a different Sally.  Sometimes, she wondered how she had ever been that girl.

She was not sure what inspired Mark to ask her about Tyler’s parents that day as they ate their lunch.  They had not seen them since their wedding, when they had come for the ceremony and then returned as quickly as possible to their home in the suburbs.  Sally had never been all that close to Tyler’s parents and from the way they had treated her in the months following the tragedy, it seemed that she was too painful of a reminder of their lost son.  It had been her own mother who had comforted her.  Out of politeness, she had invited them to her wedding – she had even called them to tell them that she understood if they did not want to come see her marry someone else.  Tyler’s mother had wanted to come (and her husband had come mostly to support her) to reassure herself that Sally was all right.  As she had put it: “I want to come see for myself that you are happy and that you are not wearing black for the rest of your life.  You loved Tyler very much.”  The older woman’s pale blue dress at the wedding reassured Sally that she too was moving on and somewhat happy.  They exchanged Christmas cards every year and Sally was always sure to let them know when their address changed.  From what she knew from the last Christmas update, the couple still had their cottage in the summer and had bought property in the southwest for the winter.  Sally had sent them a photograph of Christopher the previous year, and Tyler’s mother’s response in her card had been that she was delighted with it.  Sally wondered if the older woman thought of the boy as her vicarious grandson.  Tyler’s younger brother had two little girls.

After nine years, Sally could barely remember a day when she did not have Christopher, Sophia, or Paul to worry about.  Paul was a handful and screamed too much to go to a memorial service, so Sally had stayed home with her youngest son when the rest of the family braved the media circus to go.  Christopher was excited to attend, while both Amelia and Sophia found the scene difficult.  Amelia only went because she did not want to stay home with the baby and thought that she should be old enough by now to attend again.  Since Sophia was afraid of the crowd, her older sister had preoccupied herself with looking after her.  Christopher, meanwhile, had ridden on Mark’s shoulders and enjoyed the atmosphere immensely.

Sally kept all televisions and radios off while she tended to Paul.  The boy was three months old and colicky.  He was by far the most difficult of all of Sally’s babies, but otherwise, they were happy with their fourth child: they had a family of two girls and two boys.  Christopher had a male sibling (he had been very excited at the birth of his little brother) and Sophia had two brothers close in age.  Already, Sophia was like a little mother to him.  Amelia loved them all, but sometimes Sally could tell that she wished she was closer in age to them.  Amelia and Sophia often went places together and more than one person had asked if Sophia was her daughter, despite the toddler being awfully old to be born of a young teenager.  Sophia’s response was always “She’s my big sister!”  One woman had remained unconvinced until Amelia curtly replied that “If you saw our mom with us, you wouldn’t wonder at all!”  Despite being sisters, Amelia had her mother’s auburn hair, while Sophia had dirty-blonde curls.  Both girls looked like their mothers and little alike.  On the other hand, Christopher and Paul already seemed like two puppies in a litter.

Now, after ten years, Sally made her way past the sleeping children’s bedrooms and into the kitchen to make coffee.  Amelia and Sophia each had their own bedrooms; while both were distinctly feminine, the similarity stopped there, befitting the gap of a dozen years in age.  The boys’ bedroom was uniformly decorated with trucks and machinery.  The fridge was covered in art projects.  As Sally surveyed her surroundings, she noted that nothing seemed out of the ordinary in their home.  They were a rather typical family.  They were mostly happy.  Only on a day such as today did they stand apart from others.

Hearing a stir from the bedrooms, she put down her coffee mug.  It may have been a day for them to dance with ghosts, but the ghosts were dancing with angels.

 Oh bear me away on your snow-white wings,

To my immortal home.

27.

story copyright 2011; 2013 Katherine Gilks

 

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