Today is the fifth year.
I try not to think so much when this day comes. Every year that I am still here, bearing witness to a growing number of blood relatives and friends close enough to call family, the realization that my own family consists of just a mother and a son adds more weight on my shoulders.
I watch as everyone walks around easily, like a picture of a Sunday family picnic at the park. This small gathering of people reminds me of the past, the present and the future. As if my life has already been written out as a play of several acts. I respond to every smile directed to me. I accept and return hugs given to me. Sometimes I feel my emotions pulling me in different directions. Happy that I am part of this group of people; sad about the way things happened; angry that I was robbed of more time to make pleasant memories; bitter that the memories are becoming more faint each year.
"Do you still miss him, mami?"
I smile sadly at Fernando, careful not to give any indication that my eyes are burning with tears that are threatening to spill. He returns my smile, also sad, but does not wait for my answer. He gives my shoulder a small squeeze, letting me know that he knows and that he does not require a response. He goes back to the picnic table where the others are.
I walk a few more feet away from them, feeling the sand turn wet where the crash of sea water meets the shore. I lift my left food and wiggle my toes. I count them and almost laugh out loud when I reached ten. Because there was once a time when I was also counting toes but unlike mine, I finished counting at eight.
"Do you still miss him, Sara?"
I need not turn to know Alex was behind me. I lift my shoulders in a half shrug, a sign that says either, "I do" or "I don't know". Alex places a hand on my shoulder, the same one Fernando squeezed. He removes his hand as quickly as he held it, because I know he knows the answer too. I hear the sand swish under his feet as he quietly walks away.
I am alone again.
I make a small detour, not quite ready to rejoin the group. I see it, the headstone. Every step towards it grows heavier and heavier until I stop a few steps away from it.
MICHAEL J. SCOFIELD
10.8.1974 - 11.4.2005
HUSBAND, FATHER, BROTHER, UNCLE, FRIEND
BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD
I know the epitaph by heart. Even with my eyes closed, I can see the gray headstone in my mind as if it were only put up last week. I did not notice LJ come up beside me, his hands inside his pockets and he's shuffling from one foot to the other.
"Back when we thought you were...gone...I gave Uncle Mike the origami rose. I gave it back to him."
I nod slowly, as if to tell him that I know and I understand. As if the story has not been told so many times in the past. I was grateful and a bit relieved when he did not start with, "Do you still miss him?".
He turns to leave but turns back around to face me.
"Do you still miss him, Aunt Sara?"
There it was. The million dollar question. Such a stupid question, but I don't think they realize that. I've been asked this so many times today that I'm surprised I haven't broken down to tears or thrown a hissy fit. I look at my husband's nephew and gave a soft but hoarse, "Yeah". I don't know if he heard it, because he's still looking at me with sad eyes. He turns back around and leaves, giving me the freedom to return to my sulking.
Not five minutes later, I feel, more than see or hear, a heavy presence behind me. Again. I was sitting on the sand, my arms wrapped around my knees and my chin resting atop them. A shadow loomed over the headstone, almost laughing out loud because the shadow is intimidating...and bald.
"You still miss him, Doc?"
I smile genuinely at the nickname. He refused to call me Sara unless he's angry or frustrated. Sometimes I wonder if he's forgotten it, my name. Maybe it was intentional, because if I was still Doc, his brother would still be in Cell 40. And just maybe, he would still be alive.
Like Fernando and Alex and LJ, Linc does not wait for an answer. But he looks at me with an even more intimidating stare than what his son gave me. If I didn't know Linc the Sink, I'd say his eyes are achingly sad.
By dusk, when all the hugs and kisses have been shared, and all the reminiscing have come to an end, we troop back to our cars and trucks and get ready to head back to our normal lives. Along with the whispered prayers and kisses and light pats on Michael's headstone, we say goodbye to each other with promises of returning for birthdays and holidays.
Mikey and I ride back with Linc, Sofia and LJ. I stroke Mikey's baby soft hair, noticing that his eyes are about to close. I pull him onto my lap and embrace his little body.
"Close your eyes, baby. We'll be home soon."
It grows darker outside. The sound of waves growing fainter as we grow farther from my husband's grave. Mikey suddenly sits up and stares deep into my eyes. I do my best not to cringe because the last time steel blues stared at me like that was the last time Michael promised me that he's "coming with me".
"Do you still miss him, Mama?"
I must have gasped in surprise because the care suddenly falls silent. Linc and Sofia's quiet conversation came to a halt. And LJ's hand paused midway to grabbing chips from the bag. The only person oblivious to the tension in the car was my little Michael, who unlike his uncles, was waiting for my answer. All the questions thrown my way today finally crubled my walls and I started crying.
"I'm sorry, mama."
"What are you sorry for, baby?"
"I didn't mean to make you cry, mama."
I choked back another sob. I noticed LJ brushing a tear from his eye. I noticed Sofia's shuddered breaths, like she was trying to keep a hold of herself. And I could see Linc's hand gripping the steering wheel so tight that his knuckles were white.
If there was a time to keep your emotions at bay, this was not it.
"Do you still miss him, mama?"
My little boy nods slowly, like an adult asking another adult and getting the answer he wants to hear. Needs to hear.
"I miss him too, mama. Everyday. And every time I see you cry, I miss him more because he makes you sad."
I did not even try to suppress the tears this time.