To My Father

Dear Dad,

Tonight you pissed me off. Tonight you took a swing at me. Tonight I stormed out of the house.

I got in my car, I revved the engine until it roared, I swerved out of the driveway. My tires spit pebbles at your house.  Just like I spit at you.

I drove and drove and drove, racing around curves, accelerating into bends, leaping over hills. I smacked the steering wheel with the palm of my hand until my skin turned blotchy and red; I punched the dashboard until my knuckles were raw and bruised. I screamed until my voice was a raspy whisper.

You pissed me off.

The truth is, Dad, I love you. I know you love me. But you know how to make me angry, how to make my blood boil, my skin heat, my fists ball, my scalp itch with rage. You’d say that you know how to press my buttons because you installed them. You’d be right.

But, tonight, Dad, it went too far. I said terrible things to you, things a son should never say to his father. I called you a mean bastard, I called you a horrible father, a worthless man, a shell of a human being. I said I hated you, that I never loved you, that I never wanted to see you again.

I didn’t mean it.

I do want to see you again.

But on one of those bends, after one of those hills and before another one of those curves, I lost control. My car spun and spun, and I could see the trees whipping past my window. It seemed like the outside was moving in front of me, like a movie on a screen. Inside, all was still. I didn’t touch the wheel, I didn’t press my foot on the brake or the gas. I let my life spin out in front of me, I watched it pass me by. I sat, unbuckled in my seat, motionless. Paralyzed by the movement. Calm and at peace.

Then the car hit a tree. I never heard the crunching of the metal, the screaming of the carriage as it bent in half, the tinkling of the broken windshield. I never felt my body fly through the rectangular opening beyond the wheel, land on the rocks, behind the bushes and behind the large oak tree. I never saw the leaves floating down to caress my battered body, to soothe away the aches and pains.

But I saw you.

I saw your face when the officer came to the door. The confusion, the fear, the grief in your eyes when he told you about the accident. I saw the tears that streamed down your crumpled face. I saw your fists bunch as they had earlier, but instead of hitting me, you hit the wall, over and over again until your ripped hand went clean through the wood paneling. I saw you fall to the floor, land on your knees, shake and yell at the god you said you never believed in – especially after the war. And I saw you curl into a ball, my senior portrait in its plastic gold frame, tucked under your arms.

You slept.

I died.

I’m sorry, Dad. For everything. I love you. I’m waiting.

Scott

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To My Mother

Dear Mom,

I saw you for the last time today. You were curled up in a hospital bed, your body frail, your hair thin, your skin cold. You opened your eyes briefly when I came into the room. What was vibrant blue is now cloudy white. You still had that spark of liveliness behind your gaze, but it had dulled, become tired and pale and worn. It is a small comfort, but I think you were ready to go. You waited until I could say goodbye, then you squeezed my hand once as I cupped your wrinkled one in my own. You closed your eyes for the last time, and I laid my forehead on the white starchy sheets of your bed.

I miss you so much.

I wasn’t able to tell you much in the end. You were always sleeping, I was nervy and restless and overwhelmed. My nerves felt like they were on fire; even the touch of my daughter’s hand to my own sent sparks through my skin, bumped my heartbeat up to a gallop, flushed my skin. I couldn’t sit still, except with you. Then I had the calmness, the quiet, the company. But the words wouldn’t come. So here are the words I would wrap for you as a gift, tuck them in your pocket, bury them with you so you could carry them with you until I see you again. I’ll see you again.

You are, and always have been, the person I have strived to be. You worked so hard for me, even after Daddy died. Looking back, I realize that the late nights, the overtime, the myriad part-time jobs and couponing and skimping and saving were for me. It took the beauty of motherhood for me to understand that sacrifice. I was ungrateful as a teenager, and I know it. I wanted what the popular, rich girls had; you couldn’t give it to me, and I punished you for it. I’m sorry. Sorry that I underestimated your love, your home, your lack of materialism. That was the greatest lesson you have taught me, one I hope to pass on to Sylvie. It is not what you have that makes you who are; it’s your core, your self, your values and thoughts and feelings that determine your self-worth. Funny how the outside doesn’t really matter.

You showed me how to laugh. Still, when I watch movies, I imagine you sitting next to me, tucked under your favored blanket – you always loved being cozy – laughing and laughing and laughing. You had the best laugh. It started deep in your belly, rolled through your chest, bubbled out of your throat and mouth, filled the room with giddiness and light. Sylvie has your laugh.

You have always accepted me for who I am, my choices and my mistakes, my achievements and my failures. I had to take responsibility for my decisions – that’s what an adult does, you told me – but you always supported me. And occasionally gave me that kick in the butt I needed. Procrastination is my best friend and my worst enemy. But now I hear you in my head, telling me to “get on that!” and “be proactive!” and “stop talking, just do it!” The only thing missing is the motherly swat that would follow your orders.

And thank you for introducing me to Jack. I should’ve known that you would set me up on the one blind date that would turn into a relationship, then a marriage. I could tell that day by the spark in your eye, your uncontrollable smile, your nervous, jittery movements around the kitchen. How is it a mother always knows before her daughter? When he proposed, you danced – DANCED – around the room, shaking and wiggling and punching the air like I’ve never seen! And you cried silent tears at the wedding.

Now the only tears left are my own. They are hot and stinging and fall from my eyes in a drenching rain. I can’t stop them. Even now they drop onto this letter, polka dotting my words.

You are my mother, and I love you. I thank you.

I miss you.

Always,

Lacie

Run Away Home

10-year-old Margot stomped into her room and slammed the door so hard that the puppy calendar on the back swung wildly. She opened the door and slammed it once more, just for good measure. The panting golden retrievers slipped off their nail, and the glossy pages slid to the floor.

“I hate you,” she whispered, with a furtive glance toward the closed door.

When there were no angry footsteps, no answering shouts, no punishments, Margot balled her fists and raised her voice – almost to speaking level.

“I hate you.”

With rebellion pumping through her, Margot strode forward to pull the rolling suitcase out from underneath her unmade bed. She flipped the pink lid up and over, then tossed in her fancy dress, a nightgown, socks. Brearly, her favorite stuffed animal, the pillow from her bed. Her new chapter book. Her baby blanket, the one she still slept with, though her friends didn’t know that.

She pulled the pink lid back over and sat on it, reaching around and between her legs to tug the cheap plastic zipper closed.

She was leaving this place, Margot thought. She hated it here, hated her mom, hated her little sister. She wanted to go to where her dad was. She knew that he’d gone to heaven, and she wanted to go to heaven, too. Margot wasn’t exactly sure where it was, but she thought she’d be able to find it.

Her dad had always told her what a smart girl she was. Every summer, when they’d gone on their annual road trip to South Dakota to visit her grandparents, Margot would sit in the front seat with him, the paper map unfolded and spread across her legs. She’d follow the highway lines with her fingertip, tracing it upwards and sideways. She was a navigator, her dad said. And he’d reach out a hand to stroke it down her head, his strong fingers catching in her mess of golden curls.

If she could direct her dad from Iowa to South Dakota, she could definitely find heaven.

She slipped on her parka, then tiptoed over to her door. She turned the doorknob slowly and pulled it open a few inches, just enough to peek out. The carpeted hallway was empty. Her mother’s bedroom door across the hall was closed. But Sally’s door was open, and Margot could hear her sister’s voice singing sweetly.

She snuck past her mother’s room, and the suitcase wheeled silently behind her. She tried to pass Sally’s room, but the little girl glanced up and asked, “Margot, where are you going?”

“Shh. I’m just going away for a while. I’m going to find Daddy.”

“But Margot, Mommy said he was in heaven.”

“I know, stupid, that’s where I’m going.”

“Can I come?”

“No, you can’t. I’m going by myself.”

“Mommy’s not going?”

“No.”

“But Margot, how will you get to heaven without Mommy? We can’t cross the street by ourselves.”

Margot sighed.

“Sally, heaven isn’t across the street.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know, ok? I’m going.”

“Bye, Margot.”

“Bye.”

Margot pulled her suitcase to the front door and stepped outside into the cooling air. The sun was setting, stretching long orange fingers across the sky. She walked down the concrete steps, her suitcase bumping along behind her.

The tree-lined street was empty; everyone, it seemed, was inside, eating dinner with their families. Windows glowed warmly, smiling faces gathered around polished tables piled with food. Cats and dogs were put out back.

Margot turned left, deciding to head north. That seemed to be the most reasonable direction, to her way of thinking. South Dakota was to the north, Santa Claus was to the north.  Heaven must be to the north.

She took off, marching down the street, her head held high, her eyes focused and determined. Her suitcase rolled along behind her, its plastic wheels shredding from contact with the rough, uneven sidewalk. But when she got to the end of the block, Margot puzzled about where to go next. Best to just turn and continue walking, she thought.

As she’d told Sally, heaven wasn’t going to be across the street. She smiled to herself at her sister’s innocence. What a funny girl, Margot thought, forgetting her annoyance earlier in the evening. She was going to miss Sally when she met up with Dad, but someone needed to stay behind to take care of Mom. Sally was the best at making people smile and laugh, and she would improve Mom’s bad moods – the ones that had lasted since Dad had left. Mom still worked and shopped and drove Margot and Sally to soccer practices and ballet lessons, but she yelled a lot more now. She’d yelled tonight, upset at Margot for refusing to go to the upcoming dance.

Well, Margot didn’t want to go to any stupid dance, no matter how much money her mother had spent on a new dress. The dance was for daddies and daughters only; mothers weren’t welcome. And since Margot’s dad had left, she didn’t have anyone to go with. She was absolutely, definitely not going with her mom. It was too embarrassing.

Margot slowed down to rub an ache at her chest. Her suitcase butted the backs of her legs, and she took a step forward. She didn’t recognize what the pain was; she only knew that it hurt. It hurt near her heart. She couldn’t know, but swirling underneath her parka, her blue sweater, her white undershirt and freckled skin, was guilt and grief and hurt.

She looked up at the brief twinkles of stars just coming out to play. She closed her eyes tightly, squeezing them shut until she could see shiny squiggles across the tops of her eyelids. She wished, and she wished to find heaven, to find her missing parent. She wanted Dad to come down and go to the dance with her, to hold her tight and tell her that she was his special girl. But when she opened here eyes, the street was still empty.

Hugging her arms to ward off the growing chill, Margot turned in a tight circle, her feet catching on the unsteady suitcase so that it toppled to the ground. No, Margot was still alone. And she still needed to find heaven.

She let out a deep breath, but, determined to continue, to escape her misery, she picked up her suitcase and continued down the street. And when she got to the end of it, she turned and walked up the next one. And when she got to the end of that one, she turned to walk up the street that had her home.

As she got closer, she saw her mother standing at the open doorway, her arms crossed at the waist and a heavy cable-knit sweater wrapped around her. Margot stopped, staring at the silhouetted figure.

“Margot?”

Margot stood at the sidewalk. She felt like her legs were frozen to the ground. She couldn’t move.

Her mother stepped over the threshold and descended the stairs. She came half-way down the walk, before calling out again, “Margot?”

Margot nodded.

“Sally said you were running away.”

Margot nodded again.

“Where were you running to?”

“Heaven.”

Margot’s mom made a choking sound, a sob that broke somewhere inside her. She looked away. She gazed at nothing, saw nothing, just tried to control the tears pricking her eyes, the anguish filling her throat.

“I wanted to go be with Dad. I don’t want to go to the dance without him. I took my dress with me to show him.”

Margot’s mom turned back, taking in – for the first time – her little girl with the deep brown eyes. She dropped to her knees and reached out her arms, her expression begging for Margot to walk into her embrace.

Tired and hungry and hurting, Margot let go of the suitcase, to rush into the open arms, to lay her cold cheek on the thick cotton-covered shoulder that smelled like home.

“Margot,” her mother said, rubbing her hand in circles on the girl’s back, “I wish I could tell you how to get to heaven, but I don’t know how. I think the only people who know are there already.”

“I can’t get there by myself?”

“Not right now.”

“When can I go to heaven?”

“Later. Much later. Dad will be waiting for you.”

“He doesn’t mind? He won’t get bored?”

“No, and he won’t get bored. There’s plenty to do there. I bet he’s fishing with Grandpa right now and listening to music.”

“Do I have to go to the dance without him?”

“No, honey, you don’t. You and Sally and I can stay in and eat popcorn and watch movies. And we can talk about Dad.”

Margot’s mom stood up and reached out a hand to her daughter. Together, they walked into the white house with the blue shutters, the one that had its own glowing windows and that smelled like dinner time.

His Mother, Her Ending

He sat in the chair, his left hand fingering the nubby gray fabric of the arm rest. His right hand lay on the bed, browned and wrinkled and rough against the snowy waffled blanket.

He glanced down and the thought crossed his mind – not for the first time that afternoon – that his mother’s hand seemed so small, so fragile against his. Her pale skin was crinkled and scored with lines; her knuckles were bruised and swollen, a result of the arthritis that puffed up her joints. He rubbed a thumb over the fingers, taking comfort that they were still warm.

It was funny, he thought, that his mother seemed to have shrunk over the years, yet she remained tall, strong and vibrant in his memories. The red-headed woman with the bawdy laugh, the easy smile, the toned arms that would just as soon wrap you in a bear hug as wring a chicken’s neck for Sunday supper.

“Excuse me, sir?”

He jerked his head up, his eyes focusing on the man in the white coat in front of him.

“Yes,” he said, standing and wiping his now clammy palms on his corduroy pants.

“I’m Dr. Kent, your mother’s physician. Can we talk for a moment?”

“Sure.”

He followed the doctor out into the hall, his tennis shoes squeaking on the tile floor.

Dr. Kent glanced down at his clipboard, reviewing his patient’s history before settling his calm and steady gaze on the nervous man in front of him.

“Mr. James, are you aware of your mother’s condition?”

“You can call me Albert. I just know that she’s real sick. Is she going to get better?”

“Albert, I’m sorry, but she’s not going to get better. As it stands now, the best and only thing you can do is make sure she’s comfortable. We can give her medicine to relieve some of her pain, but her organs are gradually shutting down. The machines in her room are helping to keep her alive, and you need to seriously think about what you want to do. I strongly recommend speaking to her attorney, or whoever may have power of attorney. Again, I’m very sorry.”

Dr. Kent patted Albert’s shoulder before striding away, his coat flapping behind him.

Albert turned and leaned a shoulder against the cold metal door jamb. He scrubbed a hand over his face and through his graying curls. He was a simple man, a farmer, one who rose with the sun, who put one foot in front of the other, who did what needed to be done. But, Lord help him, he didn’t have the strength to deal with this. Any of this.

He let out a long breath, his cheeks ballooning, his lips spreading. He walked slowly to the bed in the middle of the room and looked down at his mother’s gray and wizened face. Her eyes were clamped closed, the lashes stubby and thin, the mouth pursed, even in sleep.

Albert leaned down and kissed the papery-thin cheek.

“I love you, Ma. I don’t know what to do. I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to do.”

A tear dripped from his eyes, clung to his skin before dropping onto his mother’s neck and sliding down onto the pillow.

As he fought to hold back his grief, Albert felt a gentle touch on his cheek, a delicate, shaking finger wiping away the wet track of the tear. He opened his eyes and stared into the clouded green of his mother’s.

She laid a hand on his cheek, and her mouth pulled up gently at the corners. Her eyes sparkled, full of love. She gave a slight nod of her head, the effort causing her puff of hair to shake, her eyes to close.

And Albert understood.

“Goodbye, Ma.”

The Death and the Cradle

She stood in the closet. Leaning in, she nestled her face among the dress shirts, the flannel shirts, the blazers. She breathed in deeply, comforted by the smell, a mix of detergent and cologne. It was, for her, almost like being with her husband.

She lifted her arms and wrapped them around the clothing, letting the hangers take on her weight. Her knees gradually lowered to the ground, and her body slid from the rack.

Denise curled on the floor next to a rack of shiny leather shoes. With a sob, she rubbed her swollen belly.

Her black dress clung to her clammy skin, and she reached up to pull one of the flannel button-downs. She spread it over herself, a soft blanket to warm and console. She closed the closet door, though filmy light filtered in through the wooden slats. And she rocked herself to sleep, burrowed among her sweetheart’s things.

Her Greatest Love

The marble sink felt cool and comforting beneath her clammy hands. She lowered her head, dropping her chin to her chest, and took three deep breaths. When her rapidly beating heart began to slow, she looked up into the bathroom mirror. Her brown hair, which she had gotten up so early to curl, was as limp as day-old noodles, she thought. Her blue eyes were heavily mascaraed, her lips bright pink, but the purple circles under her eyes couldn’t be completely concealed. In a word, she looked tired. It was absolutely not what she’d been going for that morning.

She’d woken up at 5 a.m., humming to herself as she rolled out of bed and slipped on her faded purple terry cloth bathrobe. She’d sung in the shower that morning. She’d even turned on the radio, tuning into the Top 40 – songs that were a welcome change from “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” – while she did her hair and makeup.

But again, putting all of her effort into something had turned out like crap.

“Come on, Betsy. What is your problem? You knew he was going to show up today.”

Disgusted with herself for dolling up like some kind of high schooler on a first date, Betsy turned on the tap with a vicious turn of the wrist. She cupped her hands under the ice-cold water, then slapped the water across her face. The mascara dribbled down her cheeks, leaving tracks of black, and her eyes were red from the assault.

Betsy sniffed once, then turned the water off. She dried her face on a handful of paper towels.

“Ok, Betsy, just make the best of the situation. So he showed up to his son’s first birthday party with a bimbo. You’ve been separated for months now. He’s filed for divorce. It. Is. Over. Don’t let him hurt your feelings any longer. You do not love him anymore, and you know it.”

Betsy knew it. It was just hard to believe that she could put so much love and work and consideration into something, and that something would run off and have an affair with his coworker. What a cliché. And Betsy had felt like such a fool.

She smoothed down her skirt, and rebuttoned the top of her new cardigan she’d bought on sale for $19.99. It had been a good find. She gave herself one last look in the mirror, disgusted with her own self-pity and lack of confidence. Reminding herself to be a fierce and independent woman – after all, weren’t those today’s divorcée buzzwords? – she wrenched open the door of the bathroom, her temporary sanctuary.

And when she walked out into the bright room, crammed with balloons and shiny gifts and flashing cameras, Betsy found she didn’t focus on her ex, or his girlfriend with the growing belly – yes, that kind of belly. No, Betsy only had eyes for one male in the room, and he was missing his left front tooth and had a cowlick that couldn’t be tamed.

“Mommy, I’ve been waiting for you. Grandma says you should help me blow out the candles.”