If Only He'd Remembered to Breathe
by Catherine Butler

Things might be better some now but, truth be told, Momma hasn't really been the same since; the whole thing kind of changed her, you know, which I guess is understandable but it doesn't change the fact that I miss the person she used to be. For a while there—after it happened—she hardly ever even left her room except maybe to go to the bathroom, and even that seemed to be a whole ordeal in itself. I sure don't want the past repeating itself.

If you ask me, I think it's the thought of one of her babies being up in limbo that made Momma wither away until there was hardly any of her left. You see, we never got time to baptize little Joe before he just went ahead and stopped breathing one night in his sleep. Yeah, I know I probably shouldn't be referring to him as Joe since he never did officially get his Christian name of Joseph but I can't help it: I know Momma gave birth to a baby boy and, heck, I know if he'd lived, we would have kept right on calling him Joe.

Anyhow, one morning—not long after we lost little Joe—I went and tried to tell Momma about this theory I came up with that if God is really and truly as great as I'm taught in Sunday school, then surely He goes every once and awhile to get one or two of them innocent babies out of limbo because, after all, it's not their fault they never got baptized. But this theory of mine just made Momma cry even more, and aside from occasionally brushing her hair, I quickly ran out of ways of trying to comfort her, not to mention time.

You see, from the moment we found little Joe lying still and blue in the face, Momma was relatively out of commission, which meant that me and the boys had to pick up a lot of the slack around the house. Of course, being the only girl meant that a lot—or most—of the chores fell on me. I could tell from the get-go that Pops didn't much care for my style of cooking (what'd he expect from a twelve year old) so I knew he wouldn't stand for Momma's moping for too long. Besides, we all of us knew there ain't no moping around for a child that was no one, really, in the eyes of the church—or at least that's what I overheard some of them church ladies say one time when they came to drop off some casseroles after Sunday service.

I did sort of get to wondering, though, how come Pops didn't seem as affected by the thought of little Joe spending eternity in limbo but that wasn't ever gonna be something I was gonna ask him about, no sir; Pops isn't big on the whole communicating thing to begin with, you know, so I didn't think asking him something like that was the smartest thing to do. I guess everyone's entitled to grieve in their own way—again, that was something I was taught in Sunday school—but it seems to me that if people don't grieve the way others think they should, they get criticized for it regardless, kind of like my Momma was.

After Momma took to staying in her room, I sure did have a lot of time to do some thinking, on account of it being so quiet around our house and all; even Samuel Junior and Abraham stopped bickering as much as they used to and I almost started to miss their noise because at least that could have distracted me from all the things going on in my head. I didn't really know how to feel or what to think but sometimes—especially when I'd hear Momma sobbing up in her room—I'd silently wish that little Joe had never been born at all. I almost hated him for changing our lives so much. Don't worry, I know this was a blasphemous thought and I admitted to having had it while at confession on many a-Sundays but that didn't change things much for awhile: no matter how many Hail Mary's Father Paul told me to say, I just kept right on thinking that maybe we'd have all been better off without having ever set eyes on little Joe. If only he'd remembered to breathe.

There's no denying, though, that Joe was as cute as a kitten and that made him kind of hard to forget. I've seen newborn babies before and they ain't all a sight to behold, that's for sure. But little Joe had these plump, pink cheeks that just made you wanna bite into them (well, not me but that's what Momma would say before she'd kiss them) and looking into his round, blue eyes was like swimming in the clearest ocean. Or at least the way I imagine the ocean to be since I've never gone further than the edge of our town but it's a nice thought anyway, don't you think?

It's still hard to believe that having such a tiny little guy around could change our lives so much but it sure did: Joe wasn't with us for more than two months which wasn't long enough for me to fall in love with him the way I guess Momma did but long enough that I got used to having him around. If only Aunt Sue hadn't insisted on coming to the christening, maybe life wouldn't have sucked as much as it did for them couple of weeks.

Since little Joe was born in the summer, right when us kids are out of school and most adults get some time off, there really was no need to wait for the baptism; the whole family was ready to go but Aunt Sue, Momma's older sister, couldn't get her boss to agree to give her some time off the week we was supposed to have it. She apparently made quite a fuss—or so I overheard Momma telling our neighbour, Louise—that in order to avoid one of them guilt trips adults seem to go on, Momma decided to hold off until her sister could make it. Knowing how things turned out, I wonder if Aunt Sue wishes she'd gone ahead and kept her big, fat trap shut. My life sure would have been easier if she'd had.

Every day after we lost little Joe, before going off to work, Pops would tell me to pack up the baby things and put them in the attic. And every day when he got home and saw that it hadn't been done yet, he just went ahead and gave me one of them looks that got to be pretty scary, real fast. All's I could say to him was that with everything else I had to do, I hadn't had time yet. But the truth was that Momma had taken to rocking some of little Joe's things in her arms and I hadn't the heart to take them away from her; I didn't bother telling Pops this—although I'm sure he was starting to suspect something was going on—because I figured he'd just tell me to take care of it and then I'd be right back where I started. I thought, No sense in wasting any of my energy—I had to save all I had left for the laundry that'd been pilling up.

I was left with no other choice than to sneak into Momma's room while she was sleeping (which she did a lot) and take things away bit by bit. Not that I was crazy about the whole thing because I'd just as soon never lay eyes on any of that stuff again. It's not that I hated my brother like I might have made it seem, it's just that I didn't need to be reminded of him a hundred times over. I'd been with Momma when she got most of the stuff and I could still remember how happy and excited she'd been. And seeing her like that had made me happy and excited too. I didn't wanna catch her sadness.

Sometimes I still think that if only we'd had a funeral for little Joe, then maybe Momma would have felt better sooner. But since, like I said, he technically was no one, they put his tiny body in a wooden box, and Pops and Uncle James took off with him in our truck. None of the rest us went with them, and for a long time after that, I kept thinking of little Joe all alone somewhere out there in a hard bed and it hurt my heart; I bet it hurt Momma's heart ten times more.

After a couple of weeks went by and Momma still wasn't really coming out of her room, I decided maybe it was time to pray again. I'd been neglected my prayers because I was sort of mad at God for everything that'd been going on in our house but then I got to thinking that maybe things weren't going so good because I wasn't asking Him to help us out. So, late one night, I got down on my knees before hopping in my bed and I said, "God, I need your help now. Please make Momma happy again so things can go back to normal." And you know, it felt kind of good asking for help, almost as good as getting a hug and it'd been awhile since I'd gotten one of them.

Right after I said my prayer, I got in my bed and went to sleep, and had me one of the most vivid dreams I'd ever had. When I woke up the next morning, I knew I had to tell Momma all about it. So, as soon as I heard the rooster crow outside, I flung the covers off my body and went straight to her room, hoping that she'd listen to what I had to say this time instead of just staring right through me like I was invisible like all them other times I tried to talk to her.

The house was quiet since the boys had gone fishing and Pops was out working in the yard like he did most weekends. So, I crept down the hallway and after knocking on the door, I walked right on in. I'd come to know there wasn't no point in waiting for Momma to tell me I could come in because if I did, I'd be waiting out in the hallway forever.

"Momma," I said, walking into the room; she was sitting in her chair, looking out the window. "Momma, I got something I wanna tell you." I sat down on the floor next to her and rubbed her leg a little to try to get her attention. Then I just went ahead and told her all about my dream.

In my dream, I'd been walking through this field of tall grass and even though I didn't know where I was, it didn't bother me none: it was quiet and it smelled real nice – sort of like I was surrounded by gardenias, which are Momma's favourite.

I walked for a while and eventually the grass got shorter and that's when a cardinal showed up. I stretched out my hand so it could perch on my fingers and it felt so natural you'd think I'd held a hundred birds before. I remembered how Momma had told me once that a red cardinal was a sign of good news to come so I said, "Hello, Mr. Bird. What good news you got for me today?" He flew off and when he turned to look at me, I knew he wanted me to follow him, so I did.

Mr. Bird led me straight to this open field but I stopped just at the edge of it because it felt like I wasn't supposed to go no further. I watched as my feathered friend flew away and landed just a couple yards away from me. And that's when I saw little Joe.

He was lying on a blanket in the middle of the field and his tiny arms was flinging every which way at the butterflies that was flying all around him. He looked happy enough and it certainly didn't look like he was in limbo or anything because there weren't tons of other babies around like I'd thought there would have been. No, this place was much too nice to be the place Momma was crying about.

I stood there for some time just looking at him; I wanted to go over and touch him but my feet felt like they was in concrete or something because I couldn't move.

"Hey, little Joe," I said. "I don't know if you remember me at all but I'm your big sis. We all of us wish you was still around, you know. I'd come over and hold you like I used to but it don't seem like that's allowed. Sorry." He gave me one of his toothless grins and kept right on playing with them butterflies that was dancing all around him. I couldn't take my eyes off of him.

Right then I felt a warm breeze—you know, the kind you get on a perfect summer night—and out came Grand-Mammy from the tall grass on the other side of the field. She moved in such a funny way that it almost looked like she was floating. She waved at me but I was so surprised to see her, that I just couldn't move none. I couldn't say nothing either because my voice had gone and disappeared on me. All's I could do was watch.

Grand-Mammy went over to little Joe and knelt beside him; she examined him all over—I guess that was the first time they was meeting—and then she took his little hands in hers and kissed them all over. Next, she bundled him up real tight in his blanket just like Momma used to before picking him up to go somewhere and something inside me told me they was gonna leave me so I cleared my throat and said, "Take good care of him, Grand-Mammy."

She turned and smiled at me before the two of them disappeared off into the tall grass.

"So you see, Momma, little Joe's alright now," I said, moving to kneel in front of her so I could look up at her face. "Grand-Mammy musta seen how sad you was so she came down from Heaven and went and got little Joe outta limbo and took him up to Heaven with her. That's gotta make you happy, right, Momma?"

Momma just kept right on staring out the window like she'd been doing the whole time I'd been talking to her and for a split second I'd felt like maybe I'd just been wasting my time. But then I caught a glimmer of something different in her eyes and I knew she'd been paying attention.

Not long after that morning, Momma started coming out of her room on a more regular basis and I like to think that maybe it had something to do with my telling her about my dream. She sure wasn't as talkative or as smiley as she used to be but that didn't matter much to us because we was mostly happy just to have her around again. I know I sure was glad I didn't have to do all them extra chores anymore.

So, things finally seemed to get back to normal around our house after that except that Pops didn't quite seem able to shake that worried look out of his eyes and Momma eventually took to rocking herself again, only this time she was mostly humming instead of crying. But I didn't let none of that stop me from thinking that – at long last – things was gonna go back to being like the used to be; that is, I thought that until late one night when Momma came into my room and shook me awake.

Without saying a word, she handed me my housecoat and took my hand so that I'd follow her, and I swear, if it hadn't been for the sound of Pops snoring down the hall, I would have thought for sure that I was having another one of them vivid dreams.

Momma led me down the stairs and into the kitchen where she pulled out my rubber boots.

"Put these on, darling," she said, slipping into a pair of her own.

"What is it that we're doing, Momma?" I asked, afraid that maybe she wasn't as well in the head again as I'd thought.

"You'll see. Now come on outside."

We went out onto the back porch and into the far side of the garden.

"Here," Momma said, handing me a small shovel.

"What is it you want me to do, Momma?"

"I want you to shovel right here," she said, pointing to a small area right near some gardenias she must have planted because we'd never had none there before.

I did what I was told and it wasn't long before I hit something hard. Momma reached down into the hole and pulled out a small tin box.

"What's inside?" I asked.

"Well, why don't you just find out," she said, handing me the box.

I put the box down on the ground and pulled off the lid, wondering what in God's name I would find inside. Just don't let it be the cat, I thought.

Turns out, I wasn't giving Momma's mental health much credit: the box contained a bunch of little Joe's things like his blanket, some tiny socks Momma had knitted for him, and his pacifier. But when I went ahead and dug down a little deeper, that's when I caught my breath.

"It's alright. You can take it out."

I sucked on my bottom lip and wished I was back in my room; I didn't want things to go bad again and I certainly didn't wanna have any part in making Momma's sadness return. She must have seen that I was hesitating because she nudged my shoulder and said, "Go on now, take it out."

My hands trembled a bit as I pulled out what would have been little Joe's christening gown. The fabric seemed so white in the moonlight. I held it up, careful not to let the tips touch the muddy ground and I waited for Momma to tell me what to do next.

"He sure would have looked handsome in it," she said, taking it away from me. I let my hands drop down on my lap and just watched her. I didn't know what to think except that maybe burying little Joe's things had been Momma's way of giving him his own funeral and that's why she'd eventually started feeling better.

We stayed quiet for a while after that and the longer she went without saying nothing, the more nervous I got. Finally, I couldn't help myself and I looked back at the house to see if maybe Pops had noticed that Momma was missing from their bed and had come to find her but we was all alone.

"You're right," Momma said, catching my glimpse back. "We better hurry before we wake the boys." She pushed some of the dirt back in to the hole and then grabbed the box and stood up.

"Whatcha gonna do with all that stuff, Momma?" I asked as we started walking back towards the house.

Momma touched her belly and smiled. "Oh, I think we'll get some good use out of them."

She took my hand again and as I followed her back to the house, all I could do was pray to God that this one would remember to breathe.

Catherine Butler currently writes, works, and enjoys great theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. She has been previously published in The Canadian Writer's Journal, Choice Works, and the 2007 CanWrite! Anthology. In addition to writing short stories, Catherine is also working on finishing her first children's novel and a few plays.