My Briefcase is a Reliquary: an essay by Cassondra Windwalker

My briefcase has become a reliquary.

Once the decadent indulgence of a stay-at-home mom who dreamed of being a writer juggling first drafts, last edits, query letters, and research notes, my briefcase was my badge of honor, a promise to myself I carried on every journey. Its seams battered by countless roadtrips and its confident twill discreetly marred by too many airport coffees, it remained a seal to my soul, surety against the impossibility of publishing in a world glutted with words.

Now it is a boneyard, a mausoleum of children who were and won’t be again.

In November 2017, my briefcase leaned haphazard against a stack of cardboard boxes. My husband and I had moved three thousand miles from the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado to the southern coast of Alaska, a decision made and implemented in a matter of weeks. Life glittered like the sun-shot ice swelling on the wild grey seas. Impossibilities had become possible – my first book contract was tucked securely in that briefcase, along with pencils and pens and a collection of flash drives. Joy was irrepressible and irresistible.

For a few days, at least. Then came a late-night phone call from my youngest daughter, a senior in high school.

She was in the hospital, being prepped for surgery. On a dark night, on an unfamiliar country road, she’d sailed through a two-way stop sign and hit another car. She’d lain trapped in a tangle of steel and glass till a fireman broke through and pulled her out.

I didn’t know those details at the time, though. All I knew was that she had survived. Before relief could overtake my shaking limbs, a new, equally horrible reality intruded, taking hideous form in her next words.

“What’s a Code Black, Mom?” she kept asking me, though from her sobbing she already knew. “What’s a Code Black?”

Through a haze of shock and pain, she’d heard the first responders talking to each other on their radios. The other driver, also a teenager, and his mother, the front seat passenger, had been killed on impact.

I knew what the words meant, but for those brief moments before her surgery, I pretended ignorance.

Joy and hope evaporated together, leaving only a twilight fog in their wake.

The next few months were a blur of doctors’ visits and court dates. My first book came out in January 2018, the second in September of the same year. But my life was counted in phone calls with attorneys and police officers. My daughter, shattered beyond recognition by guilt and horror, pled guilty and was incarcerated that summer. We could have fought the charges, which were significantly more severe than those brought in any similar cases, but the cost would have been too high. Not the financial cost – the emotional cost. She was hospitalized multiple times to prevent her from harming herself. Spending months recounting the events to lawyers and judges was not a survivable option.

Before the accident, she’d been something of a prodigy. Living on her own in a close-knit scientific community, attending her last year of high school, and working full time on particle accelerators for a government contractor, she’d collected a massive miscellany of tools and books and strange treasures. After the accident, I became a curator of her lost self, forced to sort and save or discard all that had defined her, all that had brought her happiness. I donated all her books, carefully packed away the uranium samples she’d found exploring old caves and mines, threw away torn clothes and pizza boxes. I signed her car over to a mechanic in town and boxed up her equipment. I walked the dusty trails of the desert mountains where she’d lived, as if I could somehow store up the sunsets for her. I contacted her teachers and thanked them for their efforts, though she’d been forced to drop out of her senior year and earn a GED instead in order to make her court dates.

The museum of my hours held more than her artifacts, though. I was haunted, every moment, by that other mother, that other child, who had simply ceased to be. They followed me everywhere I went, recounting in my ear not who they were – that I could never know – but who they would have been. Strangers whose paths would never have intersected with mine became my continual companions, gatekeepers of my inhalations and exhalations. If I could have given them all my air, I would have. My heart became only husk, unworthy of any treasure still left to it, but still nothing I could give would be enough.

It only took a few days to dispense of all my daughter’s possessions. The child I had borne and raised had perished that night too, in another sense: the young woman who will leave concrete and steel behind eventually is another person entirely, cobbled together of her broken pieces and bent frame. Even her name has changed. I love this new child, dearly, desperately, and still mourn her missing sister. Her life will be radically different from this old one that reads like a tragic fairytale printed on faded pages.

Some things, though, I could not throw away.

I still carry my briefcase everywhere I travel, on planes or long road trips to book signings, but I am careful not to look too closely at the contents. My daughter’s statement to her attorney is in there, painfully cribbed out in a childish scrawl, detailing all her sins, all her terrible griefs and regrets. A paper sleeve holds a CD with the police photographs of the scene. The remnants of a mother and son, as if the frame of that end could hold their being. I have no right to keep them close, yet I cannot let them go.

When I was thirty-one, I resolved to live without regrets. I’d make mistakes still, but I’d embrace them. I’d own them.  But this was entirely different.

One night, after the accident, I sat gazing out at the utter blackness of the Alaskan winter and wished desperately that I could go back. Could change one thing. Change anything. Sacrifice everything, to save that mother, save her child, save my child, from this terrible present in which we were all trapped, a present full of absence.

That’s when I met Ella.

In my book, Idle Hands, Ella is the Devil, the Adversary, the Juxtaposition who offers you that very choice. If you could go back, if you could change one thing, would you? And what would be the end of that story?

Ella is persuasive and seductive. She’s hard to withstand, and once you meet her, she’s hard to leave behind. She’s the convincing lie that cause-and-effect is a moral law and not only a physical law. That if we are only good enough, careful enough, clever enough, we can save ourselves and those we love.

We want to believe that we can consciously create our own lives. That we can build an extra second into a dark cold night, just enough time for one car to pass another.

But that second isn’t there.

I can’t stop my daughter’s car. I can’t save that mother and her son. I can only learn their names, listen for the cadence of their voices in the silence, acknowledge their tread as they walk beside me.

I can only keep this reliquary sacred, a battered black-and-white briefcase that holds all that is left and not nearly enough.

Cassondra Windwalker grew up on plains and longed for mountains. Today she lives by the frozen sea. She earned a BA of Letters at the University of Oklahoma and pursued careers in bookselling and law enforcement before resigning her post to write full time. A poet, essayist, and novelist, her short-form work has appeared in numerous literary journals and art books. Her full-length books of poetry and prose are available in bookstores and online. She welcomes conversations with readers through her social media platforms and in the occasional coffee shop.

Idle Hands is now available in paperback HERE.