Colm Francis Magee had died seven times before his seventh birthday. Cardiac arrest. Not to be mistaken for a heart attack in which clogged arteries prevent blood from reaching the heart and then the muscle withers. There was nothing wrong with Colm’s strength of heart. No, Colm Francis Magee’s heart simply and inexplicably stopped beating at the most inopportune moments.
The first time it had happened he was an infant. He was sitting up in the bathtub while his young mother gripped his arms as he kicked and splashed water into her smiling face. His auburn hair was wet and formed a crown around his head as he gazed at his adoring mama. His green eyes gleamed, wide with pride and wonder at what he could do with his tiny feet.
“That’s a boy. That’s my good boy. You’re gonna swim the Hudson. Swim for your mama.” When Cathleen cooed at him, she used her Irish mother’s nonsense-sounding baby-speak, a mixture of brogue and Brooklyn. She scooped the warm, cloudy water in her hand and poured it gently over the boy’s head, careful to keep soap from running in his eyes. His body relaxed and slowed with each pour, and so did her own.
When she first arrived home from work to feed, bathe, and put Colm to bed, she still carried the stress and anxiety of her day. She could feel it rise through her shoulders and neck, where it settled with an excruciating pressure in her temples. But as each moment passed while bathing the boy, her eyes brightened and her limbs loosened as a smile spread across her entire face.
Every morning had been the same for the past six months. She woke up tired at five a.m. a moment before Colm did and, out of lifelong habit, she said a quiet Hail Mary to herself before getting out of bed. Though her body needed sleep, it seemed to defy its own biology for the sake of another’s. Their bodies seemed to be in perfect tune; even his hunger brought her pain. Rising out of the bed slowly, she wondered about the odd evolutionary design of mother and child. It’s one thing to feel my own pain, but to physically feel it for my own child? She was at once grateful for and confounded by this phenomenon. And as she thought this she said her own version of a made-up prayer, From the beginning of time it has been the same. Every mother knows exactly what her child needs. And every child is dependent on that knowledge. May I always know what to do.
She concluded her silent prayer and, with an audible Amen, walked over to Colm’s crib and found him looking at her as if he had been waiting all night for her to come and get him. She lifted him before he even had a chance to let out his first sound and carried him over to her mother’s rocking chair from the old country, which she had set facing the window. The dawn always lightened the room just enough so that as Cathleen looked at Colm, he seemed to her to glow from within. As he drank from her, she rubbed his head softly and felt the folds of his fat thighs rippling around the edges of his diaper. Every day he seemed longer, larger, more ungainly.
Then, after taking more than his small stomach could handle, he’d pull himself away from her. He would do it so quickly that the release of the suction sent a surge of pain throughout her entire body. Before she had a second to shout out in pain, she would curse herself for lingering too long. She always gave him more than he needed, and she always paid the price. So much for knowing what to do.
Every day the same routine played out. Running late, she set Colm down in his bouncy chair and got ready for work before lugging the boy and his gear out onto the busy street. From the time they left the apartment, she was on a mission. She worked up such a sweat pushing the stroller that by the time she reached his day care, her freshly pressed blouse revealed sweat rings under her arms and down the center of her back. Once there, she set Colm down again and only had a couple of minutes to chat with his caretaker and kiss him good-bye before she dashed out the door and hustled to catch the subway to Midtown, where she began her daily duties as an office assistant.
While waiting at Starbucks to place her coworkers’ usual orders, she watched through the window as her bosses and peers arrived with designer handbags and expensive haircuts. She would never know what it would be like to be one of them—to live a single life without a child, let alone to build a career of her own making. Somewhere deep inside she also knew that married life and all that came with it was just another pipe dream for her. Dreams were like prayers, she thought. They brought comfort and moments of serenity, but in the end one couldn’t expect much of them. So Cathleen, like her mother before her, who had spent her life in the service of God and her children, did whatever she could to get by. Still, she never escaped the nagging feeling that in another time, in another place, in another world, she might have been able to realize her hopes for herself and her son.
Contrary to Cathleen’s constant state of concern, Colm was thriving. When Cathleen picked him up every evening, he always greeted her with an openmouthed smile. She often asked his teachers if he did OK without her. Did he cry or seem to miss her? They always responded the same way: “Nope. Not once. He’s a happy little guy.”
He seems to do just fine without you.
She knew she should be relieved he was doing so well, but it always hurt to hear. I’m so desperate and needy, she reprimanded herself. And then she would force herself to be grateful that Colm seemed no worse for wear.
Colm was a special sort of child. She even knew it from the night he was born, when she had asked the nurse to put him in bed with her so she could cut the loneliness in the room with no husband. She knew right then and there she would do anything for him. And then it happened. The moment everything changed. She thought it was an aberration at first, some sort of trick of her own eye or that she must be hearing things, but it was no such thing. Colm laughed. He laughed a small, almost silent laugh in his sleep. She stayed up all night—waiting for it— and he rewarded her for her vigilance again and again. There she sat in wonder, watching his slanted eyes, his two pronounced dimples, and his round toothless grin as he chuckled to himself in his sleep.
She had hoped to turn around and to share the miracle with someone. Did you see that? Did you see him smile? But there was no one there to hear her and no one to see him smile then or thereafter. His father was long gone by then. She had thought of reaching for the phone, pulling out the number scribbled on a piece of paper, and begging him to come back. But she knew he wouldn’t come, so she never made the call. Instead she lay in the quiet hospital room alone with her son.
There was no one in the bathroom with Cathleen either the day six-month-old Colm finished his imaginary swim down the Hudson and looked at his mother before his eyes rolled back into his head as he blacked out, slamming his head on the porcelain tub.
Cathleen ran with him to her bed where she felt for his pulse. Nothing. Panic filled her neck and face with a hot searing burn. She dialed 911 and yelled her address into it.
“Hurry, my baby isn’t breathing.”
Colm lay on the bed. She watched as his lips and nose and fingers turned blue, and his cheeks went from pink to gray. He made no sound. She could, for the first time since before she gave birth to him, hear only her own breathing in the room. She howled a deep guttural moan, the same sound she had heard once before as she pushed Colm out of her and into the world.
Without another thought, she grabbed Colm from the bed and held him close, pushing him to her breast as if forcing him back into her own body, as if she could start it all over, redo the past six months, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, and rewind all the way to the beginning to start over. And stop it.
She held him tightly as she rushed down the hall and down the stairs, where she heard the first faint sound of the ambulance on its way. When the paramedics arrived, she was already waiting for them on the sidewalk. Her gray work slacks and white shirt were drenched with bathwater, and she stood alone holding Colm, still naked in her arms.
Colm Francis Magee died his first godless death at seven in the evening on a Tuesday in June. His mother would find it hard to ever forgive him.