I agreed to babysit for the Clarks because I needed the money and had nothing better to do. My friend Sarah, their regular babysitter and family friend, had promised me she would be out of work at 9pm, bedtime, to take over. Sarah said the three girls were great and that the dog was a “kind of a handful.” I hadn’t babysat in a few years and had forgotten what to do, so when the girls opened the door, I shook each of their hands. Emily was a fifth grader, Katie a third grader, and little Jenna was six. I shook a six year old’s hand. The one-year-old golden lab was winding in between my legs, his nose all up in my crotch, as the girls ushered me into their home.
Mrs. Clark, who introduced herself as Denise, came down the stairs wearing a simple black dress and a sparkling gold statement necklace. The three girls introduced me to her at once, their high-pitched voices shouting about how my name is Sarah too. Denise seemed like one of those glamorous, upper middle class wives who are active members of the Parent Teachers Association and drives all of the neighborhood kids to softball practice. Her husband John, who was holding a beer as he shook my hand in the kitchen, worked in New York City during the week and played ice hockey with his old Boston College buddies on the weekends.
Denise left $20 on the counter for pizza while John told the girls to be good for the babysitter and then they left in their black SUV. I stood in the living room, trying to figure out what to do next, when Jenna shyly eased over to me and stuck her arms through the front pocket of my sweatshirt. She looked up at me smiling with her tiny white baby teeth and the biggest, bluest eyes I had ever seen. Her wispy blonde hair curled over her shoulders as she softly asked me how old I was.
“Seventeen,” I responded.
“Are you a mommy? Are you in college?”
“No, I’m in high school. I don’t have any kids.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
I laughed, “Nope.”
She looked disappointed. “Why not?”
“Well, uh, I don’t know. I just don’t I guess.”
She got over her displeasure quickly. “Wanna watch T.V.?”
Jenna crawled into my lap the second I sat down on the couch and didn’t make a scene when I had to deal with her oldest sister Emily, who had faked a bloody nose and gotten red food coloring on the dog. When DiMaggio started eating paper out of the recycling bin, Jenna stayed on the couch, watching silently. And when Emily and Katie wanted to have a dance competition, Jenna pulled out her pink tutu and her best Irish dance moves.
When Sarah finally came to take over I was exhausted. But I got paid pretty well, so the next time Sarah couldn’t babysit I offered to cover for her. Over the next couple months I babysat for the Clarks on a weekly basis. Sarah graduated from high school and was often busy, attending parties and working at her day job. Emily felt so bad about the fake nosebleed thing that she cried while apologizing to me. She was normally a responsible older sister and I soon discovered Katie was the wild middle kid constantly seeking attention by singing, dancing, yelling, and laughing. Jenna was too little and sweet to irritate her sisters so she snuggled with me while Emily and Katie shouted at each other. All three girls were so lively that sometimes I had more fun babysitting them than hanging out with people my own age. We painted rocks with nail polish, listened to clean pop songs, and ate meatball pizza fresh out of the warm, cardboard delivery box.
The Clarks vacationed in Martha’s Vineyard during the first week of August that summer so I went to my family’s cabin in upstate New York. I remember sitting in the front seat of my dad’s car when my phone vibrated. We were headed out to dinner and my verbose father was trying to give me life advice so I was relieved when I heard my text message alert and could tune him out for a little bit. It was from Sarah. “Jenna had a brain aneurysm. She didn’t make it :(“
I didn’t know what a brain aneurysm was so I couldn’t process that the text meant she was dead and I had never before received news of someone passing away via text message. I looked up brain aneurysms later that night. It’s a bulge in a blood vessel in the brain that can leak or rupture, causing bleeding into the brain. Most don’t rupture and can be detected through a brain scan. Usually they’re found when someone has a lasting headache, but I don’t think anybody would flip out if a first grader said, “Mommy, my head hurts.” Aneurysms in children under the age of eighteen are rare — there is less than a 5% chance that a child has one. They are even more rare in females than in males.
Jenna and Emily were alone when the aneurysm ruptured. Emily didn’t know what to do. The blood from her aneurysm leaked into her brain, clotting and causing massive, irreversible brain damage. 15% of patients suffering from this kind of hemorrhaging die before reaching the hospital and little Jenna was one of them. I had only met her four months earlier and didn’t think it was my place to grieve her because she had touched so many other people as well. Jenna had other babysitters, friends who would be starting first grade without her in a few weeks, her sisters, parents, and grandparents, and I felt worse for all of them than I did for myself. My dad drove me home to Connecticut the next day.
The wake was a week later. A crowd of people went to give their condolences to the Clark family. Friends dressed in black lined the sidewalk outside the funeral home. Everyone clutched tissues tightly in their hands and hid their faces behind sunglasses.
Emily, ever the responsible oldest child, was quiet, nodding to her consolers, her arms hanging limply. Katie, only nine, couldn’t grieve. She ran all over the yard of the funeral home, climbing playfully on parked cars with her spirited best friend.
I stood in line for an hour, sweating and nodding to the people I knew. I made my way closer to the door, my heart pounding with every step. Inside were photographs; toddler Jenna at the beach, baby Jenna in a pumpkin patch, Jenna’s kindergarten graduation. Tissue boxes were strategically placed behind enormous bouquets of lilies. I could hear elderly women whispering about how unfortunate it was. People walked in somber and walked out sobbing.
I saw the white casket. Jenna’s parents stood next to it, looking exhausted. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know them that well, because I spent more time with their kids than with them. I hugged them. The bouquet of lilies hardly fit on top of the small coffin. Sunlight shone through the window right behind it. I hurried out, savoring the fresh air after the stuffy building.
Caskets shouldn’t be made that size. They shouldn’t have to be made that size.