By Shannon Leigh
© 2021 by the author
The shriek pierced through the heavy darkness and Erin sat upright, her heart beating wildly. She jumped out of bed and bounded down the short hallway to Kira’s room. Erin threw the door open, crossed the room in two steps, and pulled her daughter into her arms.
“Mommy!” Kira wailed, “The Shadow scared me!”
Erin held her five year-old and gently rubbed her back, which was shuddering and heaving with sobs. This was the third night terror in as many days, and Erin was in desperate need of a good night’s sleep.
“Honey, go back to sleep, it was just a bad dream,” Erin murmured.
“Please don’t go, Mommy! The Shadow is going to get me next time!” Kira wrapped her long limbs tightly around Erin’s torso.
Erin sighed, too exhausted to fight this battle. “Come on,” she conceded, “you can sleep in my room.”
The first time she saw the Shadow move, Kira had been awake in her bed long after Mommy had left the room. Sometimes she played with her toys in the dark when she wasn’t tired enough to go to sleep. The first night that the Shadow came to life, she was trying to untangle a hair tie from her Barbie’s ponytail. As she pulled and yanked at the elastic, the dark shape across her bedroom caught her eye. Kira’s blood ran cold as she realized that the dark shape had moved ever so slightly. She squeezed her eyes shut and pulled the covers over her head, hoping that what she saw was not real.
For Kira’s whole life — or as long as she could remember—the Shadow lived in the darkest corner of Kira’s room. She never saw it move, but she knew it was there. It was shortly after her fifth birthday that the Shadow started to move and shift, but for a long time, it never left its corner. On clear nights, when the moon shone brightly through a crack in Kira’s curtains, she thought she could see two eyes of the Shadow looking at her from across the room.
In her office the next morning, Erin stared out of the window, lost in thought. The night terrors had started for Kira a few months ago, but had become more frequent and intense in the last few weeks. Erin was no psychologist, but it wasn’t hard to figure out why this was happening. Things had been tense in their household, and Erin was close to buckling under the stress. She tried her best to protect Kira and Gus from being aware of every detail, but Kira was wise beyond her five years; she could sense her mom’s strain. It certainly did not help that their family schedule was being disrupted more and more often with Erin’s frequent traveling. It was obvious to Erin that this had somehow manifested into Kira’s night terrors.
Erin rubbed her temples, yawned, and turned to her keyboard, just as Amanda poked her head into Erin’s office. “Hi! Want to grab a coffee?”
“I can think of nothing I want more right now! I slept horribly last night.” Erin bemoaned. “Kira’s having night terrors again. Meet you downstairs in five?”
“Oh no, not again. Let’s get some caffeine into you and you can tell me all about it.”
Soon, the two friends had their hands wrapped around steaming mugs at a table outside. It was that first, deliciously crisp day of fall, when even the brilliant sunshine was no match for the chill in the air. Erin was glad she had grabbed her jacket on the way out of her office. She burrowed into the warmth of her collar during a lull in their conversation.
After a pause, Amanda inquired gently, “So how is your mom doing? Have Kira and Gus seen her in the last few weeks?”
Erin shook her head, “No, they haven’t been able to go with me to visit since early in the summer. So much has changed since then. Her doctors think she’s in the final stage, and the deterioration can happen rapidly.”
Amanda reached out for Erin’s hand as she sympathized, “I am so sorry. Night terrors or not, I don’t know how you’re functioning under all of this stress. Between work, the kids, and so much traveling to be with your mom, I don’t blame you for feeling like a zombie. We are going to have to get you hooked up to an IV bag of coffee!”
Erin laughed, thankful for this moment. She squeezed her friend’s hand in gratitude as she felt her shoulders relax for the first time all week.
After school, Kira usually played in the front yard until it was time for dinner. She wasn’t allowed to leave the yard by herself yet, but she liked having that time to daydream. Daddy worked from home and could always see her from the first floor office window, as long as she stayed in the front yard. That was where she was playing when she caught Daddy’s eye through the window; he winked, smiled, and held up ten fingers. Ten more minutes and he would be off of his call and ready to hit some baseballs with her. She twirled ten times, then collapsed into the grass on her back, looking up at the spinning clouds and fiery red and orange leaves of the big oak tree.
Slowly, the world stopped spinning. Kira sat herself up on her elbows and squinted her eyes up at her two bedroom windows. Her stomach dropped as she saw the unmistakable outline of the Shadow in her window. It’s daytime, Kira thought, confused. This isn’t right. Scared, she ran as fast as she could to the house. With her hand on the doorknob, she suddenly stopped and smacked her forehead—it couldn’t have been the Shadow she saw in the window. The Shadow only came out at night; it had to be Gus playing in her room again. She opened the door, relieved to have an explanation. But at the sight of Gus right where she had left him, building a tower of blocks at Daddy’s feet in the office, her stomach dropped.
Kira slid quietly into the office and tugged at Daddy’s sleeve.
“Five more minutes,” he whispered. “I’ll meet you outside.”
“Daddy, I’m scared to go back outside by myself. I saw the Shadow in my window!” she tried to whisper, but had trouble keeping her voice quiet like Daddy’s.
He whispered back, irritated this time. “Kira, honey, we are not going to talk about the Shadow right now. Go play somewhere else.”
She looked at her three year-old brother. “Come on Gus, come play with me.”
The siblings ran to the living room and dumped out a basket of toys. While they picked through the plastic figures, Kira asked him, “don’t you ever see the Shadow?”
“Yep!” Gus replied, finding and grabbing tightly onto his favorite pink dinosaur. “The Shadow is my friend.” With that, he ran back to the office so that his pink dinosaur could knock down the tower.
“Do you mean to tell me this is now going to become part of our nights and days?” Erin asked her husband hours later, while she wiped down the kitchen counters. The house was finally quiet after the kids were in bed and she had just learned about the incident that afternoon.
“I really think it’s just a phase and we need to give it some time. It’s normal for kids to have these irrational fears. Didn’t you?” he asked, stacking the dinner plates into the dishwasher.
Erin did, in fact, remember the silly fears she had as a kid, especially at night. She longed for those adolescent phobias, which were far preferable to the anxiety that plagued her now as an adult.
Her husband continued, “It’s hard on her when you’re gone so much. I don’t say that to make you feel guilty. My point is, she’s just doing this to get your attention and it will pass soon enough.”
Erin groaned and leaned over the kitchen counter, her forehead in her hands. “I know, I know. But unfortunately, I need to go back down to see my mom this weekend. We just don’t know if she has days, weeks, or months left, and I want to spend all the time that is left with her that I can.”
Erin despised the term “The Sandwich Generation.” It was too cutesy — quite unfitting for the sadness and despair of her situation. Like millions of others, she was “sandwiched” between providing care for young children and aging parents, and never giving enough of herself to either of them. It was exhausting to be stuck between the people she loved the most, who needed very different types of care. Erin thought that “The Hamster Wheel Caught in a Hydraulic Press Generation,” was a better description, but it wasn’t nearly as catchy. She yawned, flipped the dishcloth over the sink, and headed to bed.
Hours later, Kira was floating through a candy-filled, technicolor dream world. She rode her unicorn over a rainbow bridge and onto a cotton candy cloud. She laughed and ran her fingers through the beautiful mane of the mythical creature. Kira tried to reach out to pluck a candy cane from a sparkling tree, but her hand was stuck. Stuck? No, it was caught. No, that wasn’t right either, not caught, exactly—it was being held down. She fell from her unicorn and the pink sky suddenly turned dark. Kira’s eyes flew open, and there was the Shadow, standing over her bed, its hand pressing down on hers.
“MOMMY!” she screamed in agony.
The pale blue, cloudless sky behind hills of scarlet and gold should have made Erin feel peaceful on her five-hour drive to visit her ailing mom that Saturday morning, but she was filled with dread. Kira had had two more terrible nights, and Erin was wracked with guilt for leaving her family again. She was also ashamed to admit to herself that, as hard as it was to see Kira experiencing her night terrors, it was a useful distraction to keep from processing her grief over losing her mom.
Erin’s mom was so young and active when she and her family noticed the first signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease; the diagnosis did not come until years later. Even today, Erin couldn’t believe that her once vibrant, clever mom who was so full of love and life was just a shell of her former self. Each phase of the disease created a new loss to grieve—first it was her mother’s loss of freedom when she could no longer drive. Then it was her loss of mobility, when her gait slowed and she lost her strength and endurance. Most recently, her mom no longer recognized Erin, which was salt in the wound of her already unbearable grief. But in the moments that Erin allowed herself to face her grief, she knew that what caused her the most pain was that her mother would never truly get to know Kira and Gus; likewise, her children would never know the woman that their Granny once was. It was difficult to explain to people how it felt to grieve someone who was still living. Her physical body remained, but pieces of her soul had vanished slowly over the years since her diagnosis. Yes, she was still alive and breathing, but Erin had already lost her mom.
Startled, Erin brushed a tear from her cheek. She hadn’t realized she had started crying, or that her journey was over, having been so deep in thought. She pulled her car into her parents’ driveway, eager to see them.
Kira was lying on her bed that Saturday afternoon, staring glumly at her picture book as she tried to read a few of the words she had learned, but her mind was wandering. She wished that she could have gone with Mommy to visit Granny. She knew Granny was sick and wasn’t like other grandmas; Granny couldn’t play with her or read to her, but Kira still had fun at her house. She liked spending time with Granny, because Granny never told her what to do. That’s because Granny did not say much at all, though.
The last time they visited Granny and Grandad’s house, Kira watched Mommy feed Granny the way she used to feed Gus when he was just a baby. She noticed how Mommy gently took Granny’s arms to guide her into a chair when Granny wanted to sit down, and how she helped pull Granny to her feet when she wanted to stand up. Kira remembered how, during that visit, she had found the old photo album filled with pictures of Granny, Grandad, and Mommy from before she married Daddy. Granny looked kind of the same, but seemed different somehow in those old pictures. She had a big, bright smile, and her eyes sparkled. Kira was surprised when she saw a picture of Granny hiking near a waterfall, looking back and smiling, with Grandad in the background making a funny face.
“When was this picture taken?” Kira had asked Mommy.
“That was about ten or eleven years ago,” Mommy replied, “Way before you were born!”
Kira studied the picture for another moment, then asked, “Could Granny sit in a chair by herself when this picture was taken?”
When Mommy didn’t answer, Kira looked up to see if Mommy had heard the question. She saw that Mommy’s face had changed, and she had big tears spilling down her cheeks. Kira felt awful — she knew something about her question had made Mommy sad, but she didn’t know why.
“Mommy, why are you sad?”
Mommy didn’t answer Kira’s second question, but finally whispered, “Yes, Granny could do all sorts of things when this picture was taken.”
In her bed, Kira closed her picture book. She wasn’t going to be able to learn any new words without Mommy’s help. She was about to get up and pick out a new book, when she heard the floor creak. She shrunk back down into her mattress and pulled the covers over her head, hoping that it was just her imagination. Suddenly, the covers were ripped back, and there stood Gus with a big, goofy grin on his face.
“Wanna play with my dinosaurs?”
Sunday morning, the car was packed for Erin’s long drive home. She felt that familiar sinking feeling that this might be the last time she saw her mom. Erin hugged her mom’s thin frame tightly as she said goodbye.
“It’s time for me to go now, Mom,” Erin whispered. “I love you and miss you so much already.”
Erin looked deep into her mom’s eyes for any hint of recognition, but her mom just stared blankly back at her, a body with almost no spirit left.
Later that night, Kira’s heart was full as she snuggled under her warm comforter. Mommy had gotten home in time to put Kira to bed, and Kira felt safe and secure with the whole family together again. She was nearly asleep when she sensed the Shadow. Kira sat up, knowing right away something had changed. She wasn’t afraid tonight. Kira squinted at the darkest corner of the room, where she saw the Shadow slowly stand up and start walking toward her bed. Kira held her breath as the Shadow came into clear view for the first time, and began to emanate a soft golden light.
Kira was looking into Granny’s face. But her face looked like the old photos of Granny, not like the Granny she knew in real life.
“Oh Kira,” said the Shadow, “I have been trying to reach you all this time. I didn’t want to scare you honey, I just hadn’t completed my transition yet.”
“I don’t...I don’t know what that means, Granny.”
“It means that parts of me were in your world, but I was stuck between the two places for so long. Other parts of me had moved to a new world. I wasn’t strong enough in either place to be whole, but I am whole again. My love for you, your Mommy, and Gus will never end.”
The light around Granny’s shadow grew brighter, until it was so brilliant that Kira had to cover her eyes with her hands. A moment later, the room was dark and the Shadow was gone.
The chilly autumn wind whipped Erin’s hair into her eyes. She kissed her fingers, then pressed them onto the plaque that marked the place where her mother’s ashes would be kept, in a special section of the cemetery reserved for the cremated. Erin put one arm around Gus, and the other around Kira. She looked at her daughter and thought back to that moment, just one week earlier.
Kira had crept into Erin’s bed before the sun was up. She snuggled against her mom and said, “Mommy, the Shadow was Granny all this time. She said she’s whole now, and she loves us.”
At that, Erin had felt a tingle run down her spine. “Kira…?” she began, but before she could put her thoughts into words, her phone rang. It was her father, with the news that her mom had passed peacefully in her sleep overnight.
As they walked out of the cemetery, Erin pulled her kids close to her. A flicker of a shadow slid back across the grassy lawn of the graveyard as they began their journey home.