The First One
“Is this your first one?” my teaching assistant Mary asked, as we waited for the rest of Arturo’s therapists and teachers outside of the funeral home. I was unsettled by the question, yes, but more so by the use of “this”—that orphaned pro-form that allowed for all the questions that would never have life breathed into them:
Was this the first viewing I attended for someone I wasn’t related to? Was this my first time fumbling through the rosary in Spanish, counting down the decades of Hail Marys and Our Fathers ‘til I would see Arturo’s face for the last time? The first prayer card for a twelve-year-old I’ve slid into my breast pocket? The first visitor’s ID I kept from the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit? The first time that I kept one not because I knew that I’d need it again but because I looked more fuckable than I expected? Was this my first last memory of a student: Arturo asleep in bed and clothed only in a diaper, his Pantene-commercial hair buzzed, surrounded by over-fluffed pillows and a thin sheet wrapped around his legs like a pernicious vine that I untangled and laid over him? Was this the first time I felt truly helpless, even after all the times I wiped the pureed food and honey-thickened juice he had spit on me after my amateur attempts at feeding him? The first time I noticed how small he was? That he had a tender fuzz of mustache and thin stalks of hair starting to grow from his knuckles? Was this the first regret I had about a dead person, that I promised Arturo I would visit again and that I would try and bring his speech therapist and his occupational therapist and his old teacher and his older teacher that was now my supervisor the next time I came and I never got the chance? Was this my first stab of guilt at feeling my mind catalogue these thoughts and realign them in a fictitious constellation when there is a family grieving the loss of their son who would probably still be alive if he had only been able to talk or type or point to tell the doctors when they asked him where he hurt? Was this the first time I understood that there would be others, that I would see more of my students, my children even though I know I am not supposed to call them my children, laid up in hospital beds and coffins, and that I would have nothing else to say but “I am so, so sorry”?
“Yes, Mary,” is what I tell her. “This is my first one.”