Someone to Hold Onto

Someone to Hold Onto

From Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul

Someone to Hold Onto

The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing—and face with us the reality of our powerlessness—that is the friend who really cares.

Henri Nouwen

Strange that I can still remember the doorbell ringing late that afternoon. I was twelve years old, and the everyday sound of that two-tone chime interrupted the gray February day.

Mom wiped her hands on the bleached dish-towel, throwing it over her shoulder as she left the kitchen. I abandoned my math homework somewhere in the “hundreds” column and raced my younger brothers to the door. We came to the required halt just as Mom entered the living room.

Waiting by our heavy front door, I could feel the wet Missouri cold pressing in from outside. I was tall enough to see through the top half where the window was. Standing on our red cement porch, just one pane of glass away, was Barb Murphy—the teenager I most admired in the whole neighborhood and in the entire world!

But Barb’s usually vibrant cheeks were drained, her perfect skin pulled tightly across her strong jawline. She kept her lapis blue eyes on my mom, who opened the door enough to greet her, but not enough to let the dog out.

There were whispered words, quick, jerking glances toward my brothers and me, and then Barb was spelling a word. It didn’t sound like any word I knew. Bits and pieces of my mother’s conversation with Barb kept distracting me, jumbling the letters. I struggled to make sense of that word. S-u-i-c-i- . . .

“Oh no, dear, not Bruce Garrett. When? Where did they find him?” And finally, the part I was straining to hear: “How did he do it?”

The mysterious letters became a black-hearted word that hit my stomach hard. I knew this word suicide, after all. Mr. Garrett, Cindy Garrett’s father, was dead. He had killed himself.

Cindy and I had played together every possible day of every summer, for all the years we had both lived in the neighborhood—since kindergarten. Mr. Garrett had built a playhouse for us, and when he made wooden stilts for Cindy, he made a second pair for me. When we were older, he bought real canvas bases for our neighborhood softball games. He drew a chart and showed us how to keep score, with all nine innings and each person’s name listed in his strong, black printing.

I think that Mr. Garrett really wanted to be accepted by us kids. If he drove up during one of our dodgeball games in the street, he would turn his radio to a rock ’n’ roll song, as loud as it would go, and wave at us as we stood by the curb. There’d be a dozen high-pitched voices overlapping one another, chorusing back, “Hi, Mr. Garrett!” as he drove by.

I tried to picture his tan face, straight nose and the shiny black hair that made him look like an Indian—without seeing the bloody mess that a bullet had made. I couldn’t do it, so I tried to stop seeing him at all.

My mom turned to me. “Annie, get your shoes and coat on, and go up there.”

What could my mom possibly mean? I stared at Barb, wondering if she would translate for me.

Mom’s voice came again. “Go stay with Cindy, and ask Mrs. Garrett if there is anything I can do. Tell her we are praying. . . .”

Finally hearing Mom’s words, I obeyed. Under my brothers’ silent stares, I got ready fast enough to catch up with Barb as she was leaving our house. But when we reached the sidewalk, she turned the other way, toward our next-door neighbors’.

“I have to tell the Parkers,” Barb told me. It sounded like she was talking to herself. She pulled a pair of knitted gloves from the pocket of her camel-hair coat and simply walked away.

Left with no alternatives that I could think of, I headed toward the Garretts’ house. I don’t remember walking up the street. I only remember following the sidewalk to the white police car and turning in there.

I went up the dark green steps to Cindy’s screened porch door and opened it as I had hundreds of times before. I stepped onto the rug made of scratchy straw squares, all woven together. I wanted my walk across that rug to the front door to last forever so I would never have to arrive within arm’s reach of the doorbell.

But the full-length glass of the Garretts’ storm door somehow came to meet me. I looked away to avoid my reflection. With the thumb of my left mitten, I punched at the doorbell twice before it actually rang. When it did, my stomach felt like Alka-Seltzer dropped into a glass of water.

What will I say to Cindy? Why am I here, anyway? What am I supposed to do?

I hadn’t thought to ask my mom about any of this. For a moment, my bewilderment outweighed my panic. I heard slow footsteps on the other side of the white colonial door. Terrified, I watched the brass doorknob turn and tried to remember how I normally greeted my best friend.

Struggling to see through my own reflection in the glass, I didn’t even recognize her at first. In the widening space inside stood not Cindy, but Mrs. Garrett. She pushed open the storm door with a force that belied her small frame. Her eyes were wild and red, and there was a desperate sagging to her face, with lines I had never seen.

“Annie!” she cried, as she grabbed me and clutched me to her bony, collapsing chest. It was the first time that I realized Mrs. Garrett was not much bigger than I was. I let her surround me with her shaking arms, until her sobs finally quieted. She held onto me for what seemed a long time.

I didn’t know what to say or do next, but I knew this woman’s life was broken apart, shattered now like the windshield of Mr. Garrett’s blue station wagon. I was just twelve years old, but I was someone to hold onto.

During the long months that followed, I would be with them often. I learned to spend more time greeting Mrs. Garrett and to use a softer voice. I remembered to have tissues on the floor next to every board game Cindy and I played, and I knew that if my dad walked into the room, Cindy would cry harder.

More than a year later, I explained to the librarian why Cindy had walked out in tears, leaving her application for a new library card unfinished at the section that said “Father’s Occupation.”

Knowing how to be with a family in pain never became easy. But from those first moments in Mrs. Garrett’s arms, I learned that my awkwardness didn’t matter. I was there, and that’s what counted.

Ann McCoole Rigby

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