Posted inEditor's Pick

The Strongest Woman in the Room

Kitty Sheehan | Longreads | October 24, 2018 | 3,840 words
Posted inEssays & Criticism, Nonfiction, Story

The Strongest Woman in the Room

A daughter recounts her family’s worst day, through her mother’s eyes.
Getty Images / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Kitty Sheehan | Longreads | October 2018 | 15 minutes (3,840 words)

July 27, 1978

Betty Sheehan pushed the 8-track cassette into the player and backed Dan’s car out of her driveway. The Stylistics. Dan’s favorite. She’d never heard it. When she rode in his car, she always made him turn the music down.

Dan was her son, who might be dying in a hospital, 60 miles away.

She was using all her energy to deny this and to keep those around her from believing it. Especially him.

You are everythingggggg, and everything is youuuuuuu…

She was surprised at how beautiful the music was. This beauty flooded her with sadness.

She pulled the cassette out and jammed it into the box on the floor of the passenger side. Her last time as Dan’s passenger was two months ago, when he took her to pick up her car at the repair shop. This seemed like years ago.

She rolled down the window a bit. It had to be almost 100 degrees outside. July in Iowa is no joke. She pulled a Doral from her purse on the seat beside her, put it in her mouth and pushed in the car lighter, surprised it worked.

Driving Dan’s car was like being in a room with him. Or what it had been like to be in a room with him a year ago. The car, a dark green Pontiac LeMans, smelled faintly like a gym bag, or a sweaty jacket. She looked in the back seat to see if maybe his Iowa State  jacket was there. No. He hadn’t needed a jacket for some time.

She thought of his favorite pair of jeans, the ones he wore almost all the time. The hems were ragged. And a pair of tan corduroys he’d had for a couple years. He wore those with a soft navy blue v-neck sweater; he was especially handsome in that. His dashing, dark curly hair offset the sprinkling of faded freckles on his 22-year-old cheeks.

As a little boy, he wore brown corduroys with an elastic waist and flecks of white dotted over them. They fit him for only a short time because he grew so fast, but he still wore through the knees, and Betty patched them with green flannel patches.

She’d taken a black and white photo of him in those pants, in front of the Christmas tree, at age four. His long-sleeved white t-shirt tucked into them, he squinted at the camera flash. He still squinted at a camera flash.

That tree, that turquoise chenille couch, those gray and white chintz curtains and that Kodak Brownie camera: when did that world stop, and how did this new one start?

It was impossible to imagine who she might have been then, when Dan was four.

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