SHE’D BEEN Flying a Cessna, shooting practice take-offs and landings with a flight instructor at an Omaha airstrip that was just a windsock and one lane of unnumbered concrete runway veined with tar repairs. Richard Nixon was president, the month was September, the temperature was sixty degrees, and she was Karen Manion, mother of two. The flying lessons were a gift from her husband for her fortieth birthday. The flight instructor was a gruff, retired warrant officer named Billy who claimed he’d flown everything the Army had, from fixed-wings to Chinooks. Within a week Karen would take the flight test to get her private pilot’s license, and she’d told her husband a night earlier that Billy was trying to prepare her for it by pulling stunts that some examiners were known to do, hiding flight plans and cross country maps, or forcing the plane too steep in its climb so that the horn warned of a stall. Yesterday Billy had watched Karen’s face with a confident smile as she recovered from a hammerhead spin. And now as she ran the Cessna up to sixty-five miles per hour, eased back on the yoke, and felt the plane lift up from the runway, the front window would have filled with skies that were the blue of old jeans, nothing more, and she probably glanced at the vertical speed and turn-and-bank indicators before she noticed that Billy’s hand was on the plunger throttle and suddenly jerking it back, cutting the power. Karen was supposed to push down the nose immediately to maintain airspeed, but she may have glared with shock and insult at Billy or screamed a question about what he thought he was doing, and in that hesitation the Cessna fell forty or fifty feet. The stall horn would have blared and Billy would have lunged for the control yoke as he hurriedly said “I’ve got it,” giving the plane full throttle as he tilted the nose down. But they’d fallen too far and they would have seen skid marks on concrete rushing up into the front window fast as the Cessna crashed into the runway, very hard.
Karen’s son Aidan was twelve years old and he was at home hitting a shag bag of golf balls into a peach basket with his father’s chrome bright sand wedge when he heard the kitchen telephone and ran inside to answer it. “Oh, Aidan,” Kelli, their neighbor, said, not sounding right. She paused and with some strain asked, “Is Lucy there?”
Lucy was fifteen, his older sister, so he first thought his mother’s friend was hunting a babysitter. “She’s at a friend’s house,” he said.
Kelli seemed to be crying. A hand seemed to clench her throat. “Would you go get her, honey? And then I’ll come get you both.”
She told him there had been an accident and his mother was at Immanuel, nothing more.
Aidan found Lucy four houses down the street. She and Molly were lying on the floor of the yellow living room, Lucy’s head pillowed by Molly’s stomach as she read aloud from Dylan Thomas’s Adventures in the Skin Trade. Wildly giggling at the prose, Lucy tried to go on, but Molly’s stomach bulged with laughter too and Lucy yelled in pretended anger, “You’re jiggling the pages!” Molly guffawed, rolling away and holding her waist with both crossed arms, and Lucy caught sight of Aidan in his loneliness of grief. She got up on an elbow and she quieted as she stared. “What’s happened?”
“Mom’s hurt,” Aidan said.
Kelli drove them to Immanuel Hospital. She told them their father had been contacted at work and he was already there when he phoned her. The flight instructor had been killed in the accident.
“His name was Billy,” Aidan said.
Kelli looked at him in the rearview mirror and said, “Billy. Thank you.” She tried to give them further information, but she ran out quickly, there was too much she’d only be guessing at, and so she just held onto the steering wheel tightly as she raced through yellow lights. Aidan sat in the back seat, mutely watching as tears trickled down Kelli’s cheek and she wiped them with her palm. She blurted an embarrassed laugh as she said, “I’m such a rock.”
Lucy reached across and gave a sisterly touch to her hand. “That’s okay.”
Kelli was driving them through a cathedral of shade made by stately elm trees. Aidan looked outside at a boy half his age wobbling down the sidewalk on a bicycle too big for him. And there on a porch a mother was watching, too, a hand to her mouth, imprisoning her warnings. But still the boy did not fall.
At Immanuel, a nurse told Aidan and Lucy that their father had gotten there in time to accompany the gurney as their mother was rushed upstairs into surgery. Mrs. Manion was in a coma. The head and chest wounds were “traumatic.” Kelli went down the hallway to the banks of telephones and Aidan and Lucy sat next to each other on hard plastic chairs in the uncoziness of the waiting area, saying nothing, staring at the floor. Aidan’s thoughts were discontinuous, furious, forlorn, like a child’s Crayola scribble on the wall, and when he heard Lucy whisper, “Are you praying?” he felt convicted.
“Uh huh,” he said.
“Me too,” Lucy said, and she surprised him by holding his hand in hers. “She’ll live,” Lucy said. “She’s got to.”
He was shocked that he hadn’t yet considered the fact that his mother could die from the injuries. With great urgency, Aidan silently recited the prayers he’d memorized in religion class, prayers he’d say hurriedly, his heart hammering, whenever he woke up from a nightmare. But he was convinced more was expected now, some plea, some contract, a way of prevailing against the grim odds with earnest promises that he’d be good, say a rosary every day, even become a priest, if only God would let his mother live. Please, God, he prayed, don’t let my mom die. I need her.
And then they saw their father at the far end of the hallway, walking toward them in hospital scrubs with a friend who was an orthopedic surgeon. Aidan got up from his chair just as his sister did, but when he saw Lucy freeze and fail to run forward, he stayed as he was, too. He took it as a good sign that there were no bloodstains on either of the men, but he noticed their solemnity. Dr. Welter’s stare drifted from Aidan’s to the floor. When their father was a few feet away, he quietly said, “Hi, kids.” Lucy forgot her pretense of calm and flung herself into him, her face in his chest as she screeched her misery. Worn-out, red-eyed, seemingly lost, Emmett Manion held her and kissed her head as she wept, then petted her hair and said, “Shh now. Shh.”
Lucy screamed, “I don’t want to shh! I’m sad!”
Their father looked at Aidan and held out his left arm. Aidan fitted himself under it and his father kissed his head, too. The hospital scrubs smelled of medicines, like a bathroom cabinet. The wingtip of his father’s left shoe shone with a coin of moisture. His strong chest swelled as he forced himself to inhale. “She’s gone, kids,” he told them.
Lucy fell to her knees on the floor and wailed. And Aidan felt childish and empty and impossibly stupid, for he’d at first thought his father meant she’d gotten well and left the hospital. But he hadn’t said “dead,” he’d said “gone.” Wouldn’t he have said dead if she was dead? She wasn’t, maybe.
Kelli had found cold cans of Coca-Cola for them and was strolling toward them in the hallway. But Aidan saw her halt when she saw his father. His face must have communicated with a great deal of accuracy, for she sank into a chair and folded over and cried.
The funeral was hard, but harder were the sentiments afterwards as swarming people tried to console them. Either it was a touch of assurance and a sighed confession of mystery, as in “His ways are not our ways,” as if with fathomless ulterior motives God coldly intended the crash; or they’d pat Lucy’s or Aidan’s hands while confiding in faith that much good would come from this, as if their mother’s death were a lesson they would not have learned otherwise.
Classmates stood far away from them, hollowed and ill at ease, as if death were contagious. Even lofty, fearsome Monsignor Florio fell out of character, his soft handshake holding fast to Emmett Manion’s as he instructed, “Saint Augustine wrote, ‘Non enim fecit atque abiit,’ meaning, God did not just make us and go away. We have a personal relationship with him. Whatever happens to us, good or bad, it is equally as important to God.”
Aidan’s father shamed his son by weakly answering, “Thank you, Monsignor,” seeming no older than twelve himself.
But hours later he found Aidan in his room and a football in the crook of his arm. Emmett worked up a smile as he asked, “How about throwing the oblate spheroid around?”
There was a competition over their father for a while. Kelli kept showing up with her little children and a casserole, a pan of fudge, a lasagna, and Lucy fumed, wordlessly ate, and afterwards referred to Kelli as “the divorcée.” Even in her embarrassment at vying for their father’s attentions, Kelli would find a reason to stay around until Emmett got home, and then they would drink chardonnay in coats on the patio as Aidan whacked his wiffle ball against the garage door and Lucy played desultory games of Candyland inside with the children.
But then there must have been an earnest nighttime conversation that Lucy and Aidan didn’t hear, for with fall’s unleaving Kelli stopped stopping by.
Still his sister cried for hours on end. Wherever she could in her room, Lucy hung old photographs of Karen from high school yearbooks, from the scrapbook “Our Wedding,” from the obituary in the Omaha World-Herald. She researched her mother’s injuries and hung up a framed poster on “The Anatomy of the Brain.” She reread her mother’s handwritten sentiments in the birthday cards she’d collected over the years and constructed a kind of shrine around a snapshot from her mother’s fortieth birthday party; the one where Karen Manion smiled as she held up a small plastic Cessna airplane in her right hand, and in her left a gift certificate for flying lessons. Wedged in a corner of the photograph was a slip of paper on which Lucy had written: “I will not leave you orphaned…. John 14:18.”
Lucy lost weight. She forgot tests and homework. Wouldn’t answer Molly’s phone calls. She confided in her father, shared errands with him, and flew into his embrace when he got home from work, as if she’d been storing up those tears. She said she often dreamed about her mother and gladly reported the dreams at breakfast, but neither Aidan nor her father could invent the correct reply. Out of the blue she told Aidan once, “She wants you to sign up for sixth-grade basketball. She says you’ll be good at it.” And then she wept and fell into him and Aidan held her as his father did, patting her jerking back awkwardly, but not saying “There, there.”
Their father was a stoic about it. Strong for them. Each Sunday evening Emmett wrote out the week’s schedules and chores. Listed grocery store items, his obligations at work, things that still needed to be done. Everybody was very careful with each other and avoided any harsh words. They were responsible for their own laundry now, shared the dishwashing chores, and once there was a rigorous inspection of their rooms, but he forgot to continue most of the other programs he established.
Aidan once wandered into the bedroom he still thought of as his mother’s though only his father slept there now. Nothing had changed since September. His mother’s clothing still hung in the closet—a faint hint of her sweat in her gardening shirt, a faint trace of Chanel in a cocktail dress. And hair was still in her hairbrush; her creams, conditioners, and cleansing lotions were like a cityscape on the mirrored counter in the master bathroom.
Was that healthy, having her present like that? Lucy was continually emotional, but Aidan only noticed his father’s grief once, when he woke up in the middle of the night and saw him out in the late November cold of the backyard, coatless, facing nothing at all, and weeping so like a child that Aidan himself wept with him.
Some friends from Emmett’s office visited the house in December to toast his promotion. Each was introduced to the children, but Aidan only remembered the pretty secretary’s name: Gayl, with a y. His jealousy confused him. His father cooked rib-eye steaks on the outdoor grill as fat snowflakes fluttered down and decomposed on the patio bricks. Everyone seemed too loud. Homework took Lucy and Aidan up to their rooms after dinner, but Aidan came out after an hour and crouched on the landing, his knees in a hug, to listen in on the conversation. Only Gayl had stayed and she was contrasting their father with her ex, lavishing praise on Emmett, telling him how crucial he was to the company, what a pleasure it was to watch him succeed, and how much his friendship meant to her. Could he see how lonely she’d been?
Aidan’s father said nothing.
And then she asked, “Are you aware I love you…passionately?”
Sheez, who talks like that? Aidan thought.
Emmett flatly told her, “Yes, I know how you feel.”
Aidan held his hands over his ears as he got up to go back to his room. But then he saw his sister standing there behind him, listening too, and far more interested than Aidan in whatever happened next. She chose to defend her father in advance, whispering to Aidan, “He’s human, you know.”
Aidan entered his room, shut the door, and, just in case, tuned his radio between stations so he couldn’t hear anything but a hissing, crackling noise, like tires on their cinder alley. A half hour later, however, he stood above the white forest of frost on his window to see Gayl hurrying to her Volvo with her face in her hands, as if she were holding it on, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
The assistant pastor in their parish was Father Jim Schwartz. He was handsome, humorous, in his late twenties, and all the schoolgirls got desperate and dreamy looks whenever he was around. Aidan’s father said of his preaching that “He really gets you thinking,” but the tone was that of a criticism. And Aidan’s mother once joked that he was “Father What-A-Waste.” Aidan misunderstood until she told him she meant it was a shame Father Schwartz could never marry. “The good husbands,” she said, “are always taken.”
Aidan had never visited the old rectory; no one his age ever did. It was like tempting the porch of a haunted house. He was an altar boy and one morning had to go to the kitchen door to get a cruet of wine from the old Belgian cook, and he’d seen the wide back of Monsignor Florio at the kitchen table, his black suitcoat off and his trousers held up by crossed suspenders as he smeared jam on a slice of toast. Aidan was shocked by that secret look, his violation of the fathers’ hard-won privacy, and the cook shooed him away as soon as she’d poured the red Cribari wine.
And yet one afternoon after sixth-grade basketball practice, his hair still wet and stiffening in the cold, Aidan went to the front door of the rectory and Father Schwartz himself answered the four-toned bell. Without his Roman collar and in his sneakers and jeans and Creighton sweatshirt, Schwartz could have been the high school senior who coached them. Smiling as if he’d just heard a joke, Schwartz said, “Hi.”
With hesitation Aidan asked, “Could I talk to you?”
“Is this confessional matter?”
Aidan wasn’t sure and said no.
“It’s my day off,” the assistant pastor said, but he invited him in. “I’m trying to remember your name.”
“Oh, right. Let’s go to the parlor.”
Schwartz strode jauntily to a hot, musty front room that was wallpapered in shades of lavender and congested with ornate furniture that seemed at least a century old. He fell nonchalantly into an overstuffed chair and Aidan put his gym bag on the floor as he sat on the edge of a plush sofa cushion. Schwartz crossed his ankle-high black sneakers on an ottoman. “You’re a fifth-grader, right?”
“So what’s up?”
“You knew my mom died?”
“Oh gosh, I forgot. I’m so so sorry, Aidan. I was wracking my brain.”
“Is that what this is about?”
“She was really nice,” Aidan said. “She never did anything wrong.”
Sins of his own started vagrantly populating his thoughts.
“And you’re wondering why she died?”
The priest’s right elbow was on the arm of the chair and his right cheek was against his knuckles, as in a book-jacket photograph illustrating wise consideration. “The psalmists asked it long ago,” he said. “Why do the evil prosper? Why do the innocent suffer? Why, when a loved one is dying, doesn’t God intercede? Those are philosophical questions and they fall under a category called ‘theodicy.’”
“I’m just twelve,” Aidan said.
Even in winter there, sunlight hurled itself through the southern windows and formed hatchings of shadow on the floor. Aidan’s right shoe was untied but he didn’t fix it. Schwartz linked his fingers on top of his head. His hair was Christ-long, the fashion then, and Aidan had heard older parishioners joke about it. Schwartz gazed outside at huddling girls scuttling against the wind as he told the boy, “There was an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher named David Hume who said that our experience of the world contradicted our conception of God, because if God allowed evil to exist he was not all good; or if evil was loose in the world and God was unable to counteract it, he was not omnipotent. Evil, for Hume, demolished God and he became an atheist. But he raises good questions. Because sometimes it does seem God has lost interest in us. Children starve. Wars rage on. Illness goes the wrong way too often. I get a phone call and a lady says she’s gotten a death sentence from her doctor and she cries, ‘Why me?’ I just look at Jesus hanging there on the crucifix and want to say, ‘Why not you?’ Are you following me?”
“Sort of,” Aidan said, even though he was lost. Each sentence seemed less like a window and more like a shutting door.
“We have to let God be God,” the priest said.
The conclusion felt overly routine. It’s my day off, he’d said. “But my sister and my dad and me. We ache.”
Schwartz’s head jerked as if he’d been insulted, but his frown gradually soothed. “Hey, I’m sorry, Aidan. I was off in systematic theology and you’re there with a cosmic knee in your gut. I’m no help at all, am I?”
His question felt intentionally difficult and unfair, but his face was sincere. “I guess just talking,” Aidan said. “Hearing about other people.”
“So you don’t feel so alone,” Schwartz said.
“Are you feeling responsible—that she died?”
Aidan felt accused. “Why?”
“Sometimes people do.”
Aidan gripped his gym bag and stood up. “Is your mom still alive?”
“Yes.” Schwartz stood too, seeming puzzled. “Are we finished?”
“I have a long walk home. And it’s getting cold.”
Classes started again in January. Each week that year the sixth graders had been visited by parents in differing occupations for their “What I Want to Be” project, and now Emmett Manion was there to explain accounting while Sister Josefina hunched at a back desk correcting their English homework.
The clanging radiators in the old brick grade school were generally too hot in winter, and on that near-zero afternoon there was a kind of sauna in their second-story classroom. Sister Josefina noticed aloud that the children were becoming dull, and Aidan’s father opened the upper half of the four tall windows with a long, hooked pole. Waterfalls of cold air poured in.
Aidan’s father returned to the accounting lesson, chalking a ledger page on the blackboard and printing in capitals debits and credits. But then a sparrow flew in through one upper window opening, wildly looping around overhead like a frantic bat so that Aidan’s classmates ducked down and covered their hair with their hands. One girl squealed, and Sister Josefina held her textbook overhead and swatted at the bird, trying to shoo it toward the window opening. But still the sparrow insanely circled and veered and swooped, hunting a way out, bashing into windowpanes, increasingly harassed and scared by every screech and waving arm.
At last, Emmett Manion told the class, “Let’s try this, kids. Why don’t we all quietly leave the room?” And staring over their heads at the thrashing bird, he held the door open in an official way as the class and Sister Josefina filed out. When the thirty of them were in the school hallway, Aidan’s father let him and a few others look through the window in the classroom door.
Aidan watched the sparrow flapping its wings in a panicky swirl, but as quiet took over the room, the sparrow calmed and cruised the four corners of the classroom until it felt the chill from the foot-high opening in an upper window and with a sudden swerve was flying into the immensity of outdoors.
Emmett Manion said nothing as he softly stared out at nothing at all, but Sister Josefina smiled and said, “Let us resume.”
Aidan filed back inside with the others. His father never mentioned it, and Aidan didn’t tell Lucy because he wanted it for himself: that feeling of friendship with the silence he had been hearing but had not understood.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.