A mother’s wail is like no other; a primal scream that pierces your ears and sends chills down your spine.
Six members of the medical team entered the waiting room, and I knew right away they were going to tell us Tiffany’s six-year-old son Aiden was dead. Why else would there be so many of them? I sat near Tiffany, a round wood table and whole lifetime separating us. I was a friend of her brother Rasheem and had only met her once before. As soon as the staff closed the door behind them, I moved my hand across the worn brown surface and reached for hers. She grabbed it, slowly digging her nails into my palm. “We shocked him three times…We’re so sorry, he didn’t make it,” is all I remember them saying before Tiffany’s eyes widened and she fell over.
It was as if her entire life had caved in, knocking her off the chair. I tried to catch her but could only keep her from hitting her head on the table and floor. She lay in the corner kicking the wall and then let out a scream so deep from within her chest it reverberated around the room.
I knelt down, rubbing her back, gently patting her, applying pressure as if I could somehow put her back together. As if I could reverse the tragedy unfolding. But there was nothing anyone could do. Rasheem stood in the corner, fists clenched, legs shaking. He breathed heavily. Every exhale swept through the private room like a small gust of wind. Then Tiffany jolted up and ran out the door, “I need to see him, I need to see my son! Where is he?!” She raced back into the room frantically and the staff agreed to let us see the body.
As we walked the hallways time felt suspended, like we’d be in this scenario together indefinitely. I kept thinking about what Rasheem said when we were outside the boxing gym across from Tiffany’s place, “C’mon, let’s go, that’s my sister’s building,” pointing at the smoke. It really felt like I was supposed to be there with him. His words “C’mon,” like he trusted me to be by his side for whatever was going to happen.
We continued down the hallway to a curtained room and a nurse parted the way, Tiffany went in first. She covered her mouth in shock and I took a deep breath. I reminded myself to focus on her and not the dead body of the six-year-old boy I once watched enthusiastically play video games on his uncle’s TV.
Tiffany laid next to her son’s body on the stretcher and began caressing his cheek with her thumb, “Oh, my baby, my boy.” She trembled as she cried and buried her face into the hospital blanket that covered him up to his chest. His baby blue Pokemon t-shirt was darkened by smoke. The left side of his face and arm were partly burned, exposing a fleshy-white marbled with blood. The mouthpiece of an intubation tube protruded out of his small face. It all seemed illusory and cold.
“What am I supposed to do now? What am I supposed to do?” Tiffany asked again and again, sometimes looking me in the eye. I didn’t know how to respond. All I could think about was what it would be like for her to go home, seeing all of his toys and clothes, the smell of smoke still lingering in the apartment. How was she going to tell the school that her son was dead? How would his six-year-old friends take it? What would Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s feel like? How much is his next birthday going to hurt?
Her phone rang every few minutes, friends and family blindsided by the words she uttered, “He’s gone, Aiden is gone, my son is dead.” Their reactions were the same: shock, disbelief, a scream; sometimes the call would drop. And I wondered each time how she found it in herself to say those words, “my son is dead,” or if the shock just let her numbly do so. Throughout all, she was polite, thanking the doctors and anyone who came in the room to give her more information or ask questions. Her strength was stunning. I didn’t understand how she could find any words for people at all.
During her roller coaster of pain and disbelief, she asked me: “Do you have kids?” We were alone in the room, Rasheem just outside the curtain going over details with the fire marshal. When I said no, I thought she was going to be disappointed, wishing a mom was next to her, someone who could understand better what she was going through. But that wasn’t it at all. She simply wanted to talk about how wonderful and good Aiden was. “It was my birthday last week. And this is just how Aiden was: I didn’t want to celebrate that day, I was tired and just came home from work and he was so excited to bring me flowers and a card that he had made for me. He just wanted me to have a good day, to make me happy.” She smiled as she spoke. For a moment her tears stopped. She fingered Aiden’s hair while talking about how it was always him and her together, their plans to move out of their housing projects in the Bronx and get a house somewhere. A dream now that can never be.
“You wasn’t supposed to leave me Papi; it was supposed to be me and you against the world,” she said, crying as she held him. “I’m not gonna be able to hug you no more, or sleep next to you. I should have just come straight home after work, this wouldn’t have happened.” I wanted to tell her that she couldn’t have known there was going to be a fire in her apartment building; that her son was going to be overcome by smoke inhalation; that this wasn’t her fault. But I also knew she was cycling through the emotions anyone would in this situation and it was not my place to say anything.
Tiffany’s boyfriend and cousin entered the room about an hour later. Everyone seemed to orbit around their own bubbles of grief, taking moments to console Tiffany, then moments to break down.
Finally, an older woman with glasses came in; she worked for the hospital and it was clear death was all too familiar to her. We made eye contact, her eyes peering over her frames, and she gestured me closer. We stepped outside the curtained room and she whispered to me, “You know, I don’t want to bother her, I want to give her time with her son but at the same time I’m going to need to make sure the body doesn’t stiffen. We will have to take him to the morgue soon.” She said it with a pain in her eyes and softness in her voice. “Oh, of course, can you come back in a couple of minutes?” I asked, in hopes that it was enough of a compromise for both, knowing that there is no such thing as “enough time” with your son, especially when it’s the last time you will see him before he lay in a casket.
The woman came back a few minutes later, face exactly the same as if she absorbed the sadness in the room. This time she made eye contact with Tiffany as she inched closer to the stretcher. In a quiet voice, just above a whisper, she said to Tiffany, “I am so, so sorry sweetheart. Now, I don’t want to rush you, but you see we’re going to have to move him soon to make sure his body is kept right.” Her explanation about the body stiffening seemed to momentarily distract Tiffany from her sadness, but it was only a few seconds before she realized that meant she’d have to say goodbye. The woman stepped back, as if on cue for Tiffany to scoop Aiden into her arms for the last time.
Each person then said their goodbyes to Aiden; hugging Tiffany from behind as she held him; stroking his face and kissing his forehead. All in disbelief. I didn’t let myself look at him for too long before leaving. It was only my second time ever meeting him and I was afraid it would be the last thing I remember. I wanted to remember him energetically playing in Rasheem’s living room as we did boxing drills in the corner.
We helped Tiffany walk out of the room to the waiting area, where she found her aunt and nearly collapsed into her arms. “Ohhh, I don’t know what to do, what am I gonna do!?” she cried over and over. “Why did God do this to me?!” Tears streamed down the aunt’s face but with calm and strength she said, “You’re gonna be okay, baby, I promise, you’re gonna get through this. God did not do this to you, Aiden is with Him now. But God did not do this to you!” We all stood around them in our own silent ache, as they embraced.
And then, strangely, it felt like it was time to go, like we had reached this end where grief now plateaued. We had to step back into the reality of the outside world; we had to enter a world without Aiden. Tiffany’s cousin and boyfriend helped her walk out as the double doors to the emergency room opened. Being outside felt bizarre. Like we were all holding something so big and heavy that no one else could see.
Everyone got into the aunt’s car except for Rasheem and I. Despite her generous offer to drive me, I insisted on taking a Lyft home to not detour them in any way, and Rasheem insisted on going with me. When the car arrived we quietly got in together, a few words were exchanged in the ten minute ride but I don’t remember them. I only remember putting my hand on his knee as it shook during a phone call he made to tell someone Aiden had passed. We arrived at my building and got out the car. I hugged him tighter than I ever have in our two years of friendship. “Thank you for coming with me,” he said. “Of course,” I whispered. And then I said something that sometimes feels empty when I hear it, sounds to fill the air out of nicety, “Let me know if you need anything.” But I meant every word of it. “Anything at all, seriously, I’m right here.” He nodded his head and then left as I turned to open the door to my building.
I walked up the single flight of stairs to my apartment and a tingling sensation swarmed my stomach up into my chest. My eyes uncontrollably flooded with tears and as I got to the door I covered my mouth so that no one could hear me gasp. I felt like I was drowning inside myself. I opened the door to find my partner asleep on the couch after working all night and day. I hadn’t spoken to him the entire time I was at the hospital––he had only gotten my text about a fire near the boxing gym. I couldn’t hold myself up anymore and dropped to the floor in a crouched position. I couldn’t speak. I just cried. Startled and confused, he pulled me up onto the couch and tried to calm me down. “What’s going on? Please tell me,” he asked. “There was a fire,” I mumbled through my tears and gasped for air again. I buried my face in my hands as if they could help put me back together this time. My body continued to tremble as I took shallow breaths explaining to him what happened. It all felt like a terrible dream, hours that now seemed like a mixture of foggy and vivid minutes of horror. A scenario summed up into words and flashes of a family’s lives changed forever.
* * *
It took a couple of weeks for the funeral to be planned. In the days between, I thought of Aiden every time I saw a child about his age and size on the street; when I ate, I wondered if Tiffany had eaten at all; when I laid down in bed, I wondered how much she’d slept; when I cried, I knew that what I felt hardly touched the surface of Tiffany’s immense pain. Scenes from the fire and the hospital popped in my head uncontrollably: Rasheem and I running towards Tiffany’s building–smoke billowing out the top–as firetrucks zoomed by, people frantically exiting the lobby coughing and gasping for air, confused children looking for their guardians, the doctor’s words: “We’re so sorry, he didn’t make it,” and Tiffany’s eyes widening followed by her wail––the agony that came shrieking out of her. It was the sound of everlasting grief echoed forward in time–a mother’s worst nightmare becoming reality.
The morning of the funeral I walked the eight blocks to Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church with the beginning of winter nipping at my ears. When I arrived they were still setting up so only family members were allowed in. I watched as two people entered the church and no more than five minutes later walked back out, sobbing. And then again, two walked in and back out, one almost running away while crying down the street back into her car.
When I was finally let in I wondered if Tiffany seeing me would trigger something terrible for her, a memory from the hospital, moments she was trying to put away. What if that’s all she thought about now when she saw me? I felt awkward and confused. But I hushed my insecurities and got in line to give Tiffany and her family my condolences.
She was wearing an all-white suit; if it weren’t for her swollen eyes and tears you’d have no idea she was attending something so grim. I think she wanted to be bright and beautiful for her son, exactly the way he saw her.
There were four people ahead of me in line. Each one offered their sympathies to the family, hugging Tiffany last and the longest. Then it was my turn. Tiffany instantly recognized me. I didn’t get to say a word before she pulled me in, “Ohh,” she cried, almost sounding relieved. She pushed me away from her chest for a moment, holding on to both my shoulders and said, “Thank you SO much!” It was the most sincere “thank you” I had ever heard from anyone in my life.
I then realized why seeing me didn’t upset her. It wasn’t that we were now a trigger for each other––we were a mutual understanding. I was a witness to her tragedy, there for each devastating moment. That’s what she was grateful for; what her “Ohh,” was when she saw me. And I was grateful for her kindness, for her trust in me at such an unfathomable time.
After I sat back in the pew the ceremony flew by. Sections of the Bible and prayers were spoken by the pastor, and some friends and family gave their own speeches or read poetry. One teacher explained how Aiden once wiped his mouth on her sleeve during their lunch period together and when she asked, “What was that for?” his response was, “I like you!” Everyone in the church laughed. Even while gone, he brought joy to a room full of heartbroken people.
The ceremony ended with a man singing. His voice was unsettlingly beautiful, sending goosebumps down my arm. And then the undertaker stepped forward. In a gracious and synchronized manner everyone exited the pews to the outskirts of the room and wrapped around to line up in the middle. A few went up to stand near Aiden’s casket, sometimes bracing themselves on it as they wept. One by one people said their goodbyes to Tiffany and the family. This time she collapsed more into them as if she were releasing every part of herself in each hug.
As I got closer to the front, I glanced over every now and then at Aiden. He lay in the casket wearing an all white suit, just like his mother’s. His skin perfectly smoothed over with makeup, the burn mark invisible; hair perfectly shaped, eyes fully shut; it was as if he were sleeping, peacefully. He looked much closer to the Aiden I remembered before the hospital, the one who sat about two feet away from a large TV screen, popping up and down in his little plastic chair while playing a video game. The chair eventually tipped over and he fell backwards giggling. This is the Aiden I will always remember.
I was next in line to say goodbye and Tiffany pulled me in almost harder than the first time. My chest tightened and I took a deep breath. She thanked me again and held both my hands. I told her to please let me know if she needed anything, that I lived close by. She hugged me again, this time even longer. I wanted to stay in that feeling of warmth and comfort with her, it felt safe. But we would have to leave this moment behind, again, and enter the world outside; carrying our shared memories within us.
Cynthia Rivera is a writer and photographer who lives in the South Bronx and has been the Exhibition Manager at the Bronx Documentary Center (BDC) since 2016. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2014 with a BFA in Photography and minor in Art History.
Rivera’s most recent personal work includes medium format 6×7 photography, stop-motion videos made with a Lomokino camera, narrative non-fiction writing and poetry. All of these works involve themes of family, memory, truth-telling, and motherhood.