I am finding it hard to breath.
“He went to K-Mart for mousetraps,” she begins. There are 7 children clinging to her. “He’d just finished helping Walter with his science project and he told me he would be right back.”
She speaks only slightly above a whisper. Ashen face, shellshocked eyes, she has not slept more than 3 hours at a time without aid for a year. “They won’t let me out of their sight. Not to go to school. Not to sleep. Not to go to the bathroom. They won’t let me out of their sight.”
I take inventory. There are 3 sons and 4 daughters all holding on to some part of their mother. They stare at me like deer. They do not move. They do not speak. I ask their names. It is only there a second but I see a glimmer of smile pass through her eyes.
“Walter, he’s the oldest,” She nods to her right. “He’s named for his father. But we never called him junior. His father said there was never no ‘president junior’ so we call him Walter.” Walter is holding onto to his mother’s shoulder. He is barrel chested with too big hands.
“After Walter is Saida, then Martha and Eva,” Saida sits next to Walter her hand on her mother’s arm. Martha holds her mother’s right hand. Eva mirrors Martha on the left in feature and gesture. “This is Charles and that’s David. They’re twins not identical.” Charles sits behind Martha holding onto his mother’s left arm but David is on the floor leaning against her legs.
“And this here is the baby Ruth.” At the mention of her name Ruth looks up at her mother, turns in her lap and grabs hold of her neck. Standing, I introduce myself.
“My name is Sam. Well everyone calls me Sam which is kind of funny because my mother named me Katherine.” It’s my standard break the ice joke. Walter’s stare moves from blank to curiosity and some of the tension leaves the room. I shake hands. When I come to Ruth she has her back to me, her arms tight around her mother’s neck. I motion to Hilary, an intern who is standing in the doorway, it will be her job to peel each child away from Mrs. Bates.
Hilary sits in the corner chair. I return to my desk. “Tell us what happened.”
“He went to K-Mart to get mouse traps…” her breath is extraordinarily shallow, jagged and staccato, it is disconcerting. I get up to grab a cup of water from the cooler beside my door. When I turn around, Walter picks up the story, “They tried to take his truck but he wouldn’t let them have it. So they shot him. They shot him in the head and left him in the truck.”
I hand Mrs. Bates the water. Walter begins rubbing her back. The other children place their heads on their mother. Martha begins to cry softly.
I speak to Walter, “Is there more?”
“What more is there?” I ask no one in particular.
Saida speaks, “We didn’t know where he was. In the morning when we get up Daddy fixes breakfast but there weren’t no breakfast that morning. We didn’t know where he was.”
More air leaves the room.
I pull at my collar. “What else do you remember?”
Walter answers,”Mama called the police but they told her wasn’t nothing they could do so Mama called Uncle Bill Uncle Bill said he’d go to the store to see bout Daddy I wanted to go with him but Mama said no when Uncle Bill came back he said he seen Daddy’s truck then him and Mama left when she came back she told us Daddy was dead.”
Mrs. Bates exhales. Her voice is a whisper, “That truck wasn’t worth nothing. It wasn’t even worth nothing.”
I nod. Hilary stands.
“Walter, thank you.” I look him in his eye. He returns my gaze and nods. I ask him if he will help the children go to their groups, make sure they meet their group leaders. He agrees but asks if he can come back. I tell him yes but only after he has met with his group leader too. He is hesitant but complies.
Hilary takes Eva and David by the hand. Martha grabs hold to Eva. Saida picks up Ruth. When Walter stands Charles follows. I am taken aback by Walter’s height. At 13 he looks 10 but stands nearly 6 feet tall. They leave and Mrs. Bates and I are alone.
“They trust you,” she whispers.
“The children,” she crumbles. “They never leave me. Never let me out of their sight…”
She is sobbing but there are no tears. Her face twisted in agony. Her throat refusing to issue a single sound. There is no air in the room.
“Mrs. Bates,” I begin. “Tell me about your husband.”
Her lips are moving but no sound is coming out.
“Tell me about Walter Bates, Sr.”
“I…loved…him…so…much…”She looks at me then directly at me not through. I remind myself it is not my place to cry but the questions, the longing in her eyes make it difficult. “He was so good to me…to our children…he was so good…”
I get up and go to sit next to her on the couch. Touching her left hand, she is reminded about the water. She takes a sip.”What made him good to you?”
After swallowing, she replies, “Everything. Everything made him good.”
I see her drift into a memory. A hint of life comes through. She continues, “He loved our kids. They tell the truth when they say he cooked breakfast every morning. Rise or shine. Sick or well. He got up each morning and made them a whole breakfast with pancakes, eggs, fruit. The works. He believed them commercials from when we was kids about how a good breakfast made a good day. So he fixed breakfast everyday. That’s how they knew he was gon,” she looks at me again, shaking her head, “weren’t no breakfast that morning.”
“What else, Mrs. Bates? What else was good?”
“The singing. He could sing! Sing his heart out,” she smiles. “He sung for me at our wedding. All our children can sing too. On mother’s day he would teach them songs and they’d put on a show for me. That’s how he was always thinking about ways to make other people happy. He was a good man.”
“Yes, he was,” I agree. “How do you honor that?”
She looks at me questioning.
“How do you honor that goodness, Mrs. Bates?”
“Honor? I…” she considers the question “don’t know.”
Knowing the children will be back in a few moments, I don’t want to push her too far too soon. Weighing my options, I inhale and decide. “Good men deserve honor and respect. Do you agree?”
“Mr. Bates was a wonderful human being, by all accounts. What could be done each day to honor his memory for you? For his children?”
Pondering the question, Mrs. Bates takes another sip of water. I wait.
“We use to have praise and worship in the morning,” she begins “before. That was our routine. He’d cook breakfast. I’d get the kids up. He’d start a song in the kitchen and I’d start singing then the kids would join in. We’d all end up in the kitchen singing God praises. Then he’d pray we’d sing another song and then eat breakfast.”
“What a wonderful way to start the morning.”
She nods, “Singing. We haven’t sung as a family since then. Singing is a way to remember.”
“Walter has started cooking breakfast,” she looks at me sheepishly, confessing. “Saida gets the kids dressed now. Its like their Walter and me instead of themselves.”
“I’ll need to stop that, huh?”
She sips her water.
There is a knock on the door. I rise to open it and am greeted by Walter.
“I met the group leader, like you asked,” He tells me. “Now I’m back.”
He comes through the door and goes to sit by his mother. “Are you okay?”
“Did you spend anytime with your group, Walter?”
“I met everybody. The kids liked their groups. Everyone here seems real nice,” he sort of smiles at me and shrugs. “What were you talking about?”
“How to honor Daddy,” his mother tells him.
Walter looks confused. Mrs. Bates informs him,”We should do something everyday to remember how good Daddy was. We haven’t been doing that, have we?”
Walter shakes his head.
“What do you think you could do as a family to honor your father, Walter?”
Without hesitation, Walter answers, “Sing. Daddy loved music. We should sing again mama.” He looks to his mother expectantly. She nods.
“What would you sing?”
“Praise and worship. And we need to go to church more. Daddy would be mad that we miss church so much,” he looks at me nervous. “I know mama been feeling bad but we really should be going to church. Uncle Bill said he’d take us-”
“You asked Bill?” Mrs. Bates is surprised.
Walter nods. “Yes ma’am.”
Mrs. Bates looks at me concerned.
“It sounds like Walter has grown up quite a lot this last year-”
“I’m the man of the house,” he interrupts.
“No, Walter you’re not,” Mrs. Bates sits up straight and turns toward her son. “You are not the man of the house. You are 13 years old. You are a boy. You don’t have to take your Daddy’s place. That’s not your job.”
There is air coming back into the room. I exhale and my shoulders loosen.
Walter looks as though he wants to protest. Mrs. Bates puts her arms around his shoulders draws him in.
“I’m back on the job baby. Starting today. I’m back on the job. I’m retiring you. You can be a boy again.” She holds him tight. “Okay?”
Walter is shaking his head. His mother gives him another squeeze. I see his body relaxing. She squeezes again and he squeezes back. She is whispering in his ear and he is nodding.
There is another knock on the door. Mrs. Bates lets Walter go. He wipes his eyes and smiles slightly.
Hilary walks in followed by the six.
“Ready to go?” Charles asks.
Mrs. Bates looks at me questioning.
“I’ll be here.”
She nods. Rising she grabs hold to Ruth and takes Walter’s hand leading her family out into the parking lot.
I open the window and give my own tears permission. Quickly, they come.