The Weight of Heaven
an excerpt from Thrity Umrigar's latest novel
The trauma of a child's death. The promise of a fresh start in a far-off place. The slow-motion splintering of a once-solid marriage. These are the points around which best-selling author and Case Western Reserve University faculty member Thrity Umrigar builds her latest novel, The Weight of Heaven. In this issue of Think, Umrigar shares an excerpt from this new work, in which cultural and personal clashes lead to devastating consequences.
The disappointment was a new feeling. From the first day he had met Ellie, he had always been proud of her. Ellie was one of those people who excelled at whatever she did-she was an accomplished cello player, had graduated summa cum laude from her PhD program, had been a well-respected therapist. Not to mention a loving wonderful partner to him and a devoted, vigilant mom. Which is why he couldn't understand what had made her doze off after knowing that Benny had a fever. He believed her when she said that the fever had come down by the time she'd fallen asleep, but surely she could've slept in Benny's room for one lousy night? The worst part was, he couldn't mention this resentment to anyone. He had tried voicing his thoughts to Scott the day before the funeral, but his older brother had stared at him before saying,
"It's not Ellie's fault, Frankie. It's nobody's fault. You heard what the doctor said. A few hours wouldn't have made any difference."
But he couldn't accept that. A few hours might have made all the difference in the world. A few more hours of antibiotics, fluids, blood pressure medicine-who knows how much that would've helped? If nothing else, he would've received Ellie's phone call sooner, and that would've perhaps meant an earlier flight home and more precious time at his son's bedside.
He turned in bed, knowing he should go downstairs to be with Ellie, who had gotten up hours ago. But he didn't, pinned onto the bed by another memory, one that he had previously swept away into an unlit corner of his mind. But now it fueled his simmering resentment against Ellie. The night before the miscarriage, he remembered, she had gone out with some friends from grad school. They had gone to a dance club where a salsa band was playing. Ellie had come home at two that morning, happy and tired and bragging about how she had danced for three hours straight. Six hours later, the spotting had begun. She had miscarried the baby a few days later, and although no doctor had ever made a connection, he had dimly wondered if the dancing had contributed to the miscarriage. Now, he felt a fresh wave of anger at the memory. Careless, she's so careless, he muttered to himself, even while the rational part of his brain told him that he was being unfair. But he also felt anew the freshness of the loss of the baby. At the time, they had been devastated but not inconsolable-Benny was the bright star in their lives, and they told each other that they would try again and even if it didn't take, they were already blessed with a beautiful boy. But now, Frank felt the absence of the baby. How much more bearable this Sunday would be if there was a reason to get out of bed-a little blond-haired girl, maybe, who would've come in and kissed daddy and urged him not to sleep away the morning.
He opened his eyes and peered at his watch. Eleven o'clock. He groaned and closed his eyes again. He couldn't remember a day when he'd slept in this late-it would've violated every doctrine in the Church of Benny to have let either of his parents laze around in bed until eleven. But this was the first Sunday in seven years that he was home without Benny in the house-Ben jumping up and down on his parents' bed until they realized that asking him to quiet down was like asking a gushing fire hydrant to suck back its water, and grumpily submitted to his demands; Benny racing through the house until the walls shook with the sound of his excitement; Benny pestering Ellie to make waffles and pancakes for breakfast until she gave in; Benny making a list of all the things he wanted them to do with him that day before they'd even had a chance to say good morning to each other. And best of all, best of all, Benny climbing into bed with them at six o'clock on Sunday mornings and snuggling between both of them. If it were winter, he would burrow his tiny body into Frank's, looking for all the world like a little kitten seeking shelter in a warm kitchen. And then Frank would feel what he imagined was what a woman felt like when she was breast-feeding. Cuddling with Benny made him reappraise everything, reshaped his body, made him realize that everything that he thought had belonged to him-his muscles, his heart, his strong hands, his broad chest-actually belonged to his son.
It gave his body a different purpose, as if his hands were designed for the sole purpose of cradling Benny; his stomach a burrow where Ben could wiggle in for warmth; his chest a pillow for Ben's sweet head. He would lie awake, stroking his son's hair, smiling at Ellie on the other side of the bed, knowing that she was feeling the same intensity of emotions that he was. It bound him to her, this knowledge, in a way that he had never felt connected to another human being. Their love-making had always been a language, expressive, full of words and pauses and the resuming of an ongoing conversation. But even that communion paled before what he felt toward Ellie when they shared their bed with their son. Benny completed the conversation he had started with Ellie years ago.
He heard a loud crash downstairs and was on his feet before he had even opened his eyes. Damn, he thought as he raced down the wooden stairs. Ellie's hurt herself. His stomach muscles clenched at the thought of finding Ellie injured or in pain.
"El?" he called.
"Where are you?"
There was no answer. But instead, he heard another crashing sound and raced toward the kitchen. At the doorway, he froze. Ellie was standing in front of the sink, surrounded by shards of broken glass. Every few seconds, she was systematically picking up a dinner plate or glass and dropping it into the stainless steel sink, barely flinching as the object shattered and glass flew toward her face. By the look of it, she had already destroyed a considerable number of plates. Her face was red and streaked with tears, her hair wild. Frank took one step toward her and then stopped as his wife brought another plate crashing into the sink.
"El," he yelled, and seeing that she had not heard him,
"Ellie. Stop. Stop." He covered the distance between them and grabbed her wrist, making her loosen her grip on a wineglass.
"Babe. Stop. What're you doing?"
He tugged at her wrist, turning her toward him and making her step away from the sink. The sound of the splintering glass was replaced by the sound of Ellie's broken, anguished sobbing.
"I miss him," she said. "I can't stand the silence in this house."
He pulled her toward him, and she buried her face in his chest crying loudly. He flinched, each sob landing on him like a blow, reminding him of his own impotence and powerlessness. His wife was in anguish, and he had no way of helping her. He, who from his meager grad student stipend had bought Ellie a new car when her yellow Ford finally bit the dust. He, who had bought this gorgeous Arts and Crafts bungalow simply because Ellie had fallen in love with it while they had walked past it one evening. He had approached the owners the next day, and as luck would have it, they were an elderly couple who had been thinking of moving into a retirement home. By then, he knew Ellie's tastes well enough to know that she would love the dark wooden floors, the crown molding, the cherry cabinets. And so, even though he knew the money would be tight, he went ahead and purchased it. Surprised her with the deed to the house on their first wedding anniversary. Early in their marriage he had made a promise to himself-that he would do everything in his power to make sure that Ellie never regretted her decision to marry him.
But now she was asking him to resurrect their dead son, and he had to look into those dark eyes, eyes that were mad with pain and anguish, and admit failure. His own grief, his own sense of loss, was already unbearable. He felt his body sagging under its weight and had no idea how he could hold up under the weight of Ellie's torment. He looked away. He felt burdened by the desperation that he saw in his wife's eye. Not this time, he wanted to say. He had been there for Ellie when Anne had had a breast cancer scare. When her father had needed a bypass. When one of her patients had attempted suicide. Each of those times he had been able to prop her up, to rise to the occasion, to ask the right questions of the doctors, or say the right words to his wife. But now she was asking him to fill the silence of a long Sunday afternoon that uncoiled before them like barbed wire, and he didn't have a clue how. Now she was asking him to make up for the absence of Benny, and his toolbox was empty, his hands broken.
"Babe," he groaned. "Oh, my God, Ellie."
They stood in the middle of the kitchen, holding each other. Sunlight poured in, danced on the shards of broken glass, and mocked their misery. Moments passed. Frank felt a shudder start at the base of his spine and travel up the length of his body. He held himself rigid, but it was too late. His body spasmed and then he was sobbing in loud, open bubbles of grief. He shook Ellie's arms, arms that felt like a boat built out of twigs, unable to carry the oceanic power of his sorrow.
"I'm sorry, El," he blubbered. "I don't know what to do or say to help you. I can barely manage to...."
She covered his face in kisses. "I know," she said. "It's okay. You don't have to be strong for me."
But he did. And failing to be strong made him feel ineffectual, less manly. He ran his palm over her face, wiping away her tears, and realized the futility of his gesture even while he did so. There will always be more tears, he thought. This is merely the first Sunday in a lifetime of Sundays to come-open, unplanned days that would have no purpose or shape or meaning. Days stretched before them like a banquet they had no appetite for.
"I'm going to call Jerry and Susan," he mumbled."Maybe we can go over there for a few hours."
She turned to him with the expression of a stray, wounded puppy,
"Bertie's home," she said simply, and he knew immediately what she meant.
Bertie was twelve, but his loud, shouting presence would inevitably remind them of Benny. He cast his mind around, searching for a harmless Sunday afternoon activity that would divert their attention, that would make them forget for ten minutes what had happened. He came up with absolutely nothing. He resented having to be the one to come up with a plan.
"Frank," she said suddenly, an expression on her face he'd never seen before. "I had a weird dream last night. I dreamed that-this will sound weird, I know, but I dreamed that we both drink this pink liquid-it looked like Pepto-Bismol or something- and we're able to see Benny again."
He knew immediately what she was saying, what she was asking, what she was proposing, and his heart raced. Ellie was too proud to actually say the word suicide but he knew her well enough to know that she was testing the waters, feeling him out, measuring the depth of his desperation. He knew what it had cost her to share this with him, saw from the sly, crazed expression on her face how little she was in control of her own emotions, how fervently she was hoping he would agree even while praying that he would not. Ellie was a therapist-by profession and by personality she believed in the endless, bountiful possibilities of life, in redemption, in affirmation, in hope as a moral obligation. For her to even think about suicide, let alone mention it, meant that she had stared into the heart of the universe and seen only black. That, like him, she could only imagine the stupefying blankness of an endless row of aimless Sundays. Followed by six more days each week. That, like him, waking up without Benny was like waking up knowing that the sun would not be in the sky that morning. Pointless. He reached out and raised her chin so that she was looking deep into his eyes.
"No Pepto-Bismol for us," he said. "We're not those kind of people."
Something flickered in her eyes, but he couldn't read it.
"Are we?" he added and when she didn't answer, "El. Are we?"
"No, I guess not."
He stared at her for another moment. "You're all I got in this wide world," he said quietly. "If you have any feelings for me, you gotta make me a promise right now."
She said nothing.
She shook her head. "Forget I ever said anything. Like I told you, it was a weird dream." And then, "I promise."
He realized he'd been holding his breath. "Okay."
"Can I ask you something?"
"Can we go for a long drive somewhere?"
He let out a sigh of relief, glad to be asked for something he could deliver.
"Sure, baby. Anything you want. Tell you what. You go shower, okay? And I'll-I'll just sweep up this mess in the sink."
Ellie made a rueful face. "I'm so sorry."
They left the house an hour later to go for a drive. That became their new weekend ritual-driving long distances to go
places where nobody knew their name, where expressions of pity and sympathy didn't greet them on the streets and in
the grocery stores.
In this way, they got through the first four months of their new life.