Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Through the Open Window" by Anne Faye, Chapter 11, Part 2

Beep. Beep. Beep. The alarm clock jarred me out of a sound sleep. I whacked it much harder than was necessary to quiet it. The digital read-out said 5:30. Ugh! Even though I was the one who had set the clock, it still came as a cruel shock to the system. I looked out the window. There was a good foot of snow on the ground and it was still falling. Yup, the weathermen had screwed this one up. Why was it so cold in my room? I went to flick on the light so that I could get dressed. Nothing. Maybe the light bulb had burnt out. I opened the door to see into the hallway. All the lights were out, even the one in the bathroom that my parents always left on as a nightlight. Great. The power was out. How did my alarm go off, then? I looked closer at the clock, now reading 5:34. Ah – the battery light was on. It was on back-up power. I lifted up the shade to let in the light from the snow outside. I quickly pulled on some warm clothes and lots of them. I wasn't worried about anyone seeing me get dressed. We were in the middle of nowhere, after all, and apparently, in the midst of a huge winter storm. I felt my way down the stairs, leaving Lady to continue snoozing. There was no reason for both of us to be up at this ridiculously early hour. My father was already downstairs, coat on, flashlight in hand.

“What are you doing up?” he asked.

“I thought I could help with the shoveling. I know that you still have to get to the barn.”

“That's nice of you, but didn't your mom tell you – I actually got a snow blower for this year. It works great! I don't know what made me wait so long to get one.” My father was known for his reluctance to embrace new innovations. He often seemed to pride himself on his manual labor.

“Oh, that's great! But there must be something I can do to help.” I looked around.
“Yeah, well, as you noticed, the power is out. Why don't you light some candles – you know where they are, right?” I nodded. “You can start a fire in the fireplace as well. We are going to need all the heat we can get. Looks like it might be a while before the power comes back on.”

“OK, I'll get right on it.”

He turned to head out the door, then turned back. “Just be sure to help your mother. Make sure she doesn't do too much.” He looked like he wanted to say more, but he seemed to change his mind and simply closed the door behind him as he stepped out into the cold. Was my mom OK? She hadn't mentioned anything about being sick. She would tell me if it was something serious, wouldn't she? I got to work starting the fire. It did feel good to have some warmth in the room. It added some light as well. The candles would help that problem also. How many times had we lost power when I was growing up? My mom had always harped on my dad to get a backup generator but he was stubborn. He always said we could rough it for a couple days. I think he liked to pretend we were pioneers or something. Funny thing is, I did have some good memories of those times. Maybe my father had a point.

My mother came down the stairs a few minutes later, her sweater wrapped tightly around her.

“Good morning, Mom.”

“Good morning. You are up early!”

“Yeah. I wanted to help with the storm and all. I thought I could shovel but Dad said he got a snow blower.”

“Yes, can you believe it? I finally convinced him. It only took me thirty years! I think that he is finally starting to realize that he's not as young as he used to be.” She looked around the room. “It looks like you have been busy down here.”

“Yeah, the fire is nice and warm. Why don't you come and sit by it? I can warm some water over it for coffee. Is there still instant in the cupboard?”

She sat down willingly in the chair by the fire. “Yes – same place as always – saved for emergencies such as this.”

I went to get a kettle to heat up water in and headed back into the living room.

“Are you alright, Mom?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you seemed awfully tired yesterday?”

“Oh, I've just been a little under the weather lately. It's nothing to worry about. I'm just getting old – that's all.”

“You're not old!” I protested.

“Well, thank you for saying so, but my bones say differently. I just can't do as much as I used to.” She smiled reassuringly. For some reason, I wasn't buying it. Something was up and I was going to figure out what.

“Why don't you make some oatmeal with that water as well?” my mom added. “We can have a nice hearty breakfast to warm us up. Your father will like some, too, when he comes in from the cold.”

“Sure thing, Mom.” I went to get the oatmeal and some bowls to put it in.

“Hey, Mom. I wanted to ask you something,” I ventured as I headed back into the living room.

“What's that, dear?

“Well, I was wondering if you ever think about what your life might have been like if you had married Anthony instead of Dad.”

“Oh,” she paused, looking off into the distance. “That's a hard question. Let me think. . . How should I put this?”

“Yes or no is fine. I didn't mean to pry.” I was already beginning to regret that I had asked.

“Oh, no, you deserve more of an answer than that. After all, I'm the one who told you about him. It's just, well, I don't want to give you the wrong idea. I've been very happy with your father. We have certainly had our challenging moments, . . . days, . . . months, . . . years . . .” She gave me a wry smile. “But the good days have always outweighed the bad. I have always believed that your father is the person God wanted me to marry. You and your brother were the children I was meant to have. But, Anthony has always lived on in my memory, preserved forever as the young man who loved me so much. It's easy to go back and think about how wonderful it was. Those are good memories . . .Yes, I have sometimes wondered what life would have been like with him. It's fun to imagine, but the truth is, I don't know if it would have been better or worse. I just know it would have been different. And I like the life that I have had all these years – I wouldn't want to change a thing.”

“Mmm . . . I wish I had your confidence that life always works out the way it’s supposed to. I can't help wondering if my life would be better if I hadn't married Alan.”

“I can see how you would feel that way. You were terribly hurt. Think about it, though, if Alan hadn't cheated on you, or if you hadn't found out, you probably wouldn't have left South Hero. As much as I have hated to have you gone, I know that it has been good for you to get away. It sounds like you are making quite the life for yourself in Springfield. You have a good job and you have met what sounds like a very nice man. None of this would have happened if you hadn't been hurt. There is nothing so bad that God can't bring some good out of it.”

“You're the second person to tell me that. Maybe you are right.”

“I know I am. Besides, what good will it do you to wish you had made a different choice? You can't change what has happened. All you can do is move forward. You have a wonderful inner strength that I have always admired in you. This has only made you stronger.”

“I don't feel very strong,” I countered.

“That may be so, but you are. Don't disagree with your mother. I've known you forever!” Mothers always think that they are right. Would I be that way with my own kids, assuming that I actually had any. Yes, I had to admit. I probably would. If you can't be right with your own kids. who can you be right with? And, of course, they would always think I was wrong.

I noticed that the water was finally boiling and ladled out cupfuls for our tea and cereal. My father came through the door, stamping off the snow. The first rays of daylight were just beginning to come through the windows. Muted though they were, they made the candles somewhat less necessary.

“It's brutal out there,” he said, taking off his boots and massaging his frozen feet.

“Yeah, I'm dreading having to put Lady out. I always feel bad for the animals on days like this.”

“Oh, they are doing OK. It's not too bad inside the barn. I'll check on them again later. Right now, I think I'm going to go sit by the warm fire.”

“Yes, I've made some tea and we can have some oatmeal.”

“Sounds good. Thank you.” My father seemed to be in a fairly good mood this morning, especially considering that he had been out in the freezing cold and we had no power. He had an interesting idea of what constituted a good time.

“I thought we might put up the Christmas decorations today,” my mother said as I sat back down.

“With the power out?” I asked.

“Sure. It's daylight now. It will be bright enough. It will give us something to do. I always like to put up the decorations the day after Thanksgiving. I love how the house looks at Christmastime.”

“I know you do, Mom.” Every year growing up Mom would recruit Bill and me to help her put up the decorations, and there were a lot of them. My mother did not know the meaning of the term “understated.” Last year, I hadn't even put up a tree. I threw away the one Alan and I had bought for our first Christmas, along with all the ornaments. Maybe I should get one this year. I couldn't have Mike thinking that I was the Grinch, could I? I would need to go shopping when I got home.

After we ate, I went up to the attic with my father, flashlights in hand. It was amazing how much stuff was up there, a lifetime of memories stored under the rafters.
“We should really get rid of a lot of this stuff,” my father said as he looked around the room. “Your mother has always liked to hold onto things, just in case.”
“Well, you never know when you might need something.”

“Like mother, like daughter. Come on. Help me carry this stuff down the stairs.” All the Christmas decorations were piled in one corner, several boxes worth, plus the tree which was in several bags. It took us several trips up and down the three flights of stairs to finally get it all in the living room. After the first trip, my mom offered to help but my father wouldn't let her. He told her to sit and rest. Something was definitely not right with this picture. My father was a gentleman, but he always let my mother pull her weight around the house. Of course, she had always insisted on it. Now, she wasn't even attempting a protest. The only time she had acted like this that I could remember was when she was having her cancer treatments. Cancer. Oh no, it couldn't have come back, could it? My heart sank into my stomach. She had said she was OK. I looked over at her. Would she lie to me? Why would she do that?

“Let's see. What should we do first?” My mother's voice broke into my thoughts. She was looking at all the boxes. Do you want to decorate the kitchen or in here?”

“I don't care.” I tried to sound normal, although I'm fairly certain I didn't succeed. My mother didn't seem to notice.

“Well, let's start in here, then. Pat, can you set up the tree for us? Lucy, you and I can start on the garland.”

We worked in relative silence for a while, my mother issuing directions every few moments, my father and I doing our best to comply. Before long, the tree was standing proud, if naked, and garland was up on the stairs and around the large clock on the wall. Then it was time for the ornaments. We always had a rather eclectic look. It definitely wouldn't have made the cover of any home decorating magazine, that's for sure, but it was ours and it was special. I always loved that tree. As we took out each ornament, my mother told the story of each one. She had at least one ornament from each year that she and my father had been married. The first one had been a gift from her grandmother soon after their wedding. Each ornament had such history. Even though I had heard the stories so many times, I could tell that it gave my mother pleasure to retell them. It was like she was reliving the moments of her life as she hung them on the boughs.

“I should really give some of these to you,” she said as she hung a wooden ornament I had painted in first grade. “These are your memories, too.” I thought I detected another tear in her eye. Did I dare broach the subject? I looked over at my father who had completed his mother-appointed tasks and was dozing in the recliner. I took a deep breath.

“Mom, are you OK?”

“Why do you keep asking me that?” she answered a tad bit testily. “Yes, of course I'm OK. I'm just emotional. I always have been. You know that!”

“I know, but it seems like there is something else. Your cancer hasn't come back, has it?”

“No, of course not,” she answered hastily, shaking her head. She fumbled with another ornament on the tree – a Santa Claus that Bill had made when he was little.

“Don't lie to the girl!” My father's voice boomed from the other side of the room.

“I'm not lying! My cancer hasn't come back!”

“I won't stand by and let you lie to her. I know I promised I wouldn't tell her, but I won't stand by and watch you lie to her. She deserves to know.”

“What?” I looked back and forth from my mother to my father. “What is it? What do I deserve to know? The cancer has come back, hasn't it?”

My mother sat down sullenly, shooting daggers at my father with her eyes. “I wasn't lying. The breast cancer hasn't come back.”

“No, it hasn't,” my father agreed. He turned to me. “She has brain cancer.” The words echoed in my head.

“Brain cancer? When did you find out? Why didn't you tell me?” The questions poured out of me.

“I found out a couple months ago. I didn't want to tell you because I didn't want you to feel like you needed to come rushing back here, thinking that you needed to take care of me again. I know how much you gave up for me the last time. I won't have you do that again.”

“Maybe she wants to take care of you,” my father interjected. “Maybe she should come back here. I don't know why she wanted to go so far away in the first place. We could use her here, especially now.”

“She has her own life. She is happy where she is. She needed to get away from this place.” I felt like I wasn't even in the room as my parents argued about me. I was still trying to register the information that I had just heard.

“Maybe I should be the one to decide what I am going to do.” I stated angrily. “I can't believe you didn't tell me.” My parents just looked at me. Neither one seemed to have a clue of what to say to me. “Does Bill know?” They shook their heads. Well, at least I wasn't the only one left in the dark. “You should tell him. He should know.”

“You're right. He should,” my father agreed. “I've been telling her that since we first got the news.”

“I just wanted to enjoy these holidays without feeling like the grim reaper was hanging over my head. Is that so bad?”

“Are you dying?” The reality of that hit me like a ton of bricks. She had beat cancer before. I had no doubt she could do it again. “Aren't you getting treatment?
Isn't there something that they can do? Chemo? Radiation? Something?”

“There's nothing that they can do,” my mother said.

“Well, have you gone for a second opinion? There are other doctors.”

“Yes, we've seen other doctors. There is nothing they can do,” my mother repeated. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I looked at my father for confirmation. He nodded sadly.

“How can you two just sit here so calmly? How have you been able to act like everything's OK?”

“I'm sorry, sweetheart.” My mother reached out for me. I pulled away. “I had your best interests at heart. I didn't want to cause you more pain.”

“So, what? Dad was just going to call one day and say that you had died. Was that your plan? You didn't think that that would hurt?” I shouted accusingly.

“You will not speak to your mother in that tone,” my father warned me.

“I have to take the dog out.” I turned on my heels and ran up the stairs. I didn't care if there was a blizzard going on outside. I needed to get out there. I needed air. I scooped Lady up, threw on my coat, ran back down the stairs and out the door.

“Lucy!” I could hear my mother shouting after me. I ignored her. The frosty air assaulted me as I stepped out the door. The snow was falling even harder now. Wasn't it going to ever let up? I knew I couldn't stay outside forever. Lady was shivering terribly. What on earth was I going to do? I couldn't go back in there. I couldn't face my mother again. She was dying? After all that had happened to me, I was going to lose my mother, too. How long did she have, anyway? How ever long it was, it wasn't enough. “God, how can you do this to me?” I yelled up at the stormy sky. Nothing but silence answered me. That figured. God was always silent at times like this, wasn't he? Lady just looked at me. I had to get her out of the storm. I saw the barn in the distance. The path my father had made to it was filled in with snow, but I could still follow it. We headed that way.

I was thankful to reach the barn and get out of the wind. My father was right – it wasn't too bad in there. Lady barked at the cows as we went in. They mooed in reply. It was a regular symphony. I sat on a bale of hay. How many times had I come here when I was growing up? It was always a good place to think, to get away from it all for a while.

What on earth was I going to do? My mother needed me. As angry as I was at her for not telling me, and at my father for going along with it, I knew that she had been trying to protect me. Would I come back here and take care of her? She didn't seem to want me to. My father apparently thought I could be of help, though. What was I going to do? I had just started to feel like I was making a life for myself. I was just starting to heal. Life was just starting to get better. I had a home in Springfield, a job I enjoyed, Mike . . . I wished I could talk to him. I wished I could just stay in the barn forever, make the whole world go away. I wished I could stop the deep ache within my heart.

A few minutes later, the barn door opened and my father came in.

“I thought I might find you in here.” I didn't reply. “Your mother sent me after you. She was worried sick about your being out in this storm.”

“I'm OK. I know enough to get out of a storm,” I said sullenly.

“Lucy,” he paused, apparently searching for the right words. “Lucy,” he began again.

“I wanted her to tell you, but you know how stubborn your mother can be. She seemed to really not want you to know. She doesn't want you to give up that new life you've started.”

“I know, Dad, but shouldn't that be my choice? I'm not a child anymore.”

“No, you're not, but right now you are acting like one.”

“What?” I looked at him with fire in my eyes. How dare he?

“It's the truth. You are out here sulking like a child in the middle of a blizzard. What are you so mad about anyway?”

“I can't believe you!” I shouted back. “In the last hour I just learned that my mother is dying and that nobody thought I needed to know. I am not sulking! I'm trying to figure out just what in the hell I am supposed to do with this information.”

“Listen, Lucy, I know you are upset, but your mother needs you right now. She's up there bawling her eyes out and in her condition she certainly does not need any extra stress. So, you are going to pull yourself together and come back to the house with me and tell her that you are sorry. As for what you are going to do, you don't need to make a decision right now. Just come back to the house.” He turned to go, then turned back at me. “Well, are you coming?” I thought about protesting and just staying put, but I guess that did seem rather childish. He was right. This wasn't about me at all, was it? It was about my mom and my doing whatever I could to make her last days on earth as good as they could be.

“Dad,” I began in a much calmer voice.


“How long does she have?”

He shook his head sadly. “The doctors don't know – not for sure. They figure a few months, but it could be more or less. We just don't know.”

“I'm sorry. I know this must be hard on you, too.”

“Yes, it is. Your mother is the only woman I have ever loved. I don't know what I am going to do without her.” Lady and I followed him back to the house.

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