– Nonfiction by Dianne Apter –
Margo draws a card and moves her yellow pawn ahead four spaces. Plink-plink-plink-plink. She leans back, smiles and nods at Abby, her older sister. Abby pushes her overgrown bangs aside and draws a card. Go back four spaces. She grimaces but dutifully moves her red pawn back.
“I’m next,” I say and land squarely between my two daughters.
Margo’s turn again and the number on the card she draws lands her right on top of Abby’s guy.
“Uh Oh! Soooorrrryyyy,” she says as she bumps Abby’s pawn back to start on the board.
I sigh. “Oh, too bad, your guy has to begin all over.” I glance out the window at a gloom that reflects my own boredom.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, the worst day of the week for family without a dad, for broken families. The three of us are sitting on the floor in Abby’s room innocently playing the board game, “Sorry.” It’s a favorite and we have played it many times over the years. The rules aren’t complicated. If a player, making her way around the board lands on a space occupied by another player’s piece, she must bump that piece back to the beginning, calling out “Soooorrrryyyy,” with a large degree of snotty insincerity. In hindsight, this is a game fraught with potential for disaster for players who happen to be emotionally raw and ready to explode with any provocation, even a thin one.
He’s gone. He’s been gone for a little over a month. The friends and relatives have returned to their lives. The fruit baskets have all been donated or trashed along with the rotting flowers. The girls are back in school and I have returned to work. We have left the valley of sickness and death and returned to the flat land of the living. Sort of.
We are not doing well. We are each suffering alone, in separate ways. No one approves of one another’s behavior. My thirteen-year-old Abby, vanishes into her room almost every evening and cries in not so private pain. She feels that she is winning the suffering prize. Maybe she is.
Margo just wants to avoid drama at all costs. The act of crying, her own or anyone else’s frightens her. She doesn’t let herself go down that path. She dislikes drama. She works hard at keeping the peace. Isn’t that what ten year olds do? And me? It is clear to me that I’m doing everything wrong. I am totally flunking that course called ‘helping-your- children-through- grief’. I am doing nothing to help them travel the touted stages that are supposed to lead to inner peace and acceptance. I am not reaching out to them.
I just cannot. No deep talks; no sharing our feelings. Every ounce of my energy goes into holding on and holding in. I can only hope that there are others in their lives who do give them outlets for their waves of pain. As for me, all I really want to do is crawl into the back of my closet, hide behind my clothes, shut the door and stay there. Forever.
I am sick of the responsibility of setting the emotional tone for our little family. No bad moods allowed for me. No ma’am. If I’m cranky, sad, tired, or snippy the kids mirror me and there is no one to offer an alternative or some kind of balance. When I am sure they are asleep, I sneak outside to hide in the tool shed behind our house, smoke a cigarette, and drink a glass of Cognac. Ha! That’s a laugh. I never smoked or drank before but somehow it fits grieving widow behavior and my own form of self-pity.
Step by step. Everyone said, “Take it one step at a time”. And so we do. Diagnosis. The news as bad as bad can be. “This is not us,” we say. “We are not the type. Not our family. Not our dad.” Suddenly our world is a different world.
Then comes the promise. “I will not leave you,” he sighs as we cling to each other. So there it is, hope. This will be solved. We have never NOT solved any predicaments that life chose to shoot at us. We have NEVER broken promises. Let the battle commence. Bring on the armaments.
“Daddy’s sick,” we euphemistically claim. Daddy will get better is the implied. We keep life going around us. We ride the ups and downs. We adapt because we have to. The minutia of living pushes us on. Friends approach with their caring thoughts as we watch the kids’ T-Ball games or school plays. They want updates but succeed in reminding us that we were not as normal as we are pretending.
My dark nights. My clear conviction that he is the better parent, the better spouse, the unselfish and steady one. My secret call to hospice. “You can still have hope,” they tell me. “Calling us isn’t giving up.” Or is it? We watch and wait. Getting sicker and sicker. I am dreadful in my role of nurse. Better in my sham of strong woman. I am the master of pragmatism. Drink the Ensure. Get second and third opinions. Ride middle of the night ambulances. Way too many additions to our medicine cabinet. He, so calm and resigned. Me, screaming at any doctor who puts up with me. Finally, my hope vanishes and my chore becomes allowing others to hang on to theirs. I want to scream, but I do not. I want to disappear, but I do not. I want to stop caring, but I do not.
Now, we are a reconfigured family and the march continues. Right foot, left foot. Just keep going. Time to get up for school. Time to get ready for work. Time to make dinner. Time to do homework. Thank god, it is finally a decent time for bed. Now I can unglue my happy face. I can step out of my ‘everything is normal’ skin. I can run to my hideaway tool shed. Shiver in the night air and suck on my cigarette.
“You cheated!” Abby shrieks and I am yanked back to the present. “She did not,” I say, in Margo’s defense, while Margo looks like she would rather be anywhere but here right now. “She did cheat,” pouts Abby, her voice growing more tense and shaky.
“She did not,” I retort.
Louder and louder this ridiculous dialogue goes on. What am I doing engaging in a playground struggle with my child? I cannot stop myself. Why am I so angry?
I am breathing short quick breaths through my nose, faster and faster. My head is throbbing and my throat is closing up. There is a searing white flame in front of my eyes. I am outside of myself watching a crazed woman screaming at a 13-year-old little girl. I cannot stop this run-away train.
“You both are ganging up on me,” Abby chokes out, through tears. “I was right here on this space, not where Margo landed! I know I’m right. Both of you think you are so perfect, but I know I am right.” She glares at me.
“OKAY YOU’RE RIGHT! YOU’RE RIGHT! YOU’RE RIGHT! YOU’RE RIGHT! BEING RIGHT IS ALL THAT MATTERS, ” I screech.
Abby sits with teeth clamped shut and arms crossed over her body. Her face is as red as mine feels. The tears drip from her deep blue eyes down her cheeks. She lifts the game board and heaves it across the room. Margo’s brown eyes are wide but unreadable. She starts picking up the game pieces.
I stand up and continue to scream. “Go ahead and be right, Abby. Enjoy being right all by yourself. You managed to ruin the game. I’m getting out of here.”
“It’s okay, Mommy. Don’t leave,” Margo pleads.
Oh my god the outside me says to the inside me. They know I am out of control. They have never heard me shriek like this. Look at their frightened faces.
But, I don’t stop. I storm out of the room, stomp down the stairs, grab my car keys and slam the front door so hard behind me the house vibrates.
“Mommy,” I hear one of them cry out, but I don’t stop. I get in the car, back out with a squealing screech of tires and drive exactly one block. I pull over. I crumble over the steering wheel, sobbing.
What have I done to my babies? What kind of person am I? I can’t do this. I can’t parent without him. I can’t hold this family together. I am failing them. I am failing everyone.
I…. just…. can’t.
My sobs finally dwindle down to hiccups. My breathing returns to normal. My throat aches. I don’t know how this all happened. One minute we were sitting on the blue flowered carpet calmly playing a silly game and the next instant an insane, horrific scene erupted.
I continue to steady my breaths. An image appears across the fogged up windshield as if I am viewing a movie. A clear memory of me sitting beside our bed, his eyes fluttering. Those last moments with him, me clinging to his cold, dry hand and telling him, “It’s okay. We will be okay. You can go now. We will be okay.” And he left us.
I blink my eyes and know I have to get home fast. I circle the block, pull in the driveway and see my girls sitting together, shoulder to shoulder, on our front steps.
“Oh, Mommy, I was so worried you would crash the car,” says Margo in a trembling voice.
“Mom, I didn’t mean it. I don’t have to always be right,” says Abby. She reaches for my hand.
I gather them in my arms, breathing in their sweet, sweaty smells and feeling their tear-stained cheeks. We cling together with tears and kisses. “I am so, so sorry,” I whisper.
About the Author – Dianne Apter
Dianne Apter first turned to creative non-fiction about five years ago as she reached age seventy. She is retired from Apter & O’Connor Associates, a consulting firm she co-founded based in Syracuse New York. She served as a program evaluator for human service and educational agencies and presented her work nationally at conferences and in academic publications. This essay is one of several she has written with the focus on her husband’s death and its impact on her two daughters and her…their reconfigured family. He was forty and the girls were thirteen and ten so there was a lot of restructuring of a family that needed to occur.
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