The Way You Did Once

in story •  6 months ago


He had to stifle a snicker to keep people from thinking he'd lost it. Hell, with the kind of folks who'd showed up here, there was half a chance someone might try to escort Olivia away… “Until Daddy is better able to care for you.” He'd already gotten lots of unhelpful advice that revealed how incapable people assumed he must be. Let's not add to that laughing out loud at his wife's dead body.

But it was hard to ignore. The home had made her look so beautiful, with a light summer dress and her fists clutching an enormous rosary. All around her rose colored face, they'd put prayer cards with the saints.

One of those helpful people must have explained that Jill was a devout Catholic, and it was true she had all sorts of holy trinkets. She had Hindu and Buddhist tokens as well, of course. Jill wasn't devout. She hated church and didn't believe in god. But she loved religious kitsch and thus the get up was appropriate and it made Luke a little happier. Not a lot and not for long, but for a little and it was enough.

The wake drew to a close and Luke realized that he wasn't sure where Olivia had gone. He surveyed the crowd and did not see her. Then he saw the open door and the shower of little white flowers, like a wedding. There was a woman - Janet? Janice? - who used to watch Luke when he was a boy and she was crouched down next to his girl.

“Shit.” he muttered under his breath and went out there.

Olivia's eyes lit up when she saw him, perhaps relieved. She ran into his arms and he swung her onto his shoulders. Janice or whatever swaggered over and grinned. She handed him a gold gift bag with something heavy in it.

“I'm sorry I didn't have the chance to see you earlier.” she said. “But Olivia and I had a nice little talk about death.”

He resisted the urge to say shit again. And the urge to choke her. Janet had called earlier to offer her condolences. “If there's anything I can do…” It seemed she was damn well going to find something she could do. Unsatisfied with with Luke exercising his right to be left alone, she swooped in to explain death to his child. As if anyone could.

“Daddy, are we going home now?”

“Yes, bear.” And he was as relieved as she was.

“Are we bringing Mommy?”

Luke didn't know what to say. Janet opened her helpful mouth, but he raised a gentle hand and walked off. He knew that woman thought that somehow an eight year old didn't understand that her mother was gone. Of course Olivia got that.

She was asking exactly what she said - wouldn't they pack up the casket and take it back with them? Luke had considered keeping her ashes after the cremation, not that this is what Olivia meant, but had decided instead on burying them.

“No, she has to stay here for a couple more days.” he said.

“What will they do with her?”

She really wanted to know the details of how her mother's remains were to be handled. Putting the image of fire in her head was a bad idea, so no to that answer.

“I just…” said Olivia. “I don't want her to feel alone.”

Jill had already felt very alone. More alone than Luke had understood. He'd been a marine in the Iraq war and had even saved a child from an open firefight, but he had been unable to save Jill from that loneliness. The most difficult outcome was that Olivia felt her mother's sadness with such empathy. She wanted to help Jill, and that made Luke want to cry more than his own feeling of loss.

A nice little talk about death. Are you kidding? This child knew better than anyone. She'd seen death creep up on a living person and snatch her away.

“They're going to watch over her.” he said. “So her spirit can pass over.”

The answer felt a little forced, and a slight betrayal to what Jill herself believed. Luke had never before talked about spirits and passing over. Even as a boy he hadn't accepted that and he actually remembered saying so to Janice.

The memory struck him just then - she'd asked if that's what he wanted, just death and darkness and nothing else. This had confused him and his sitter had seemed so satisfied with this confusion that he gave up. Let this grown child have her day. Bet she told his own parents about the nice talk they had.

Today Luke would have said, no it's not what he wanted. It's just how it is. Yet he found himself spinning fairy tales to his own child. Was it to protect her, like letting her believe in Santa for one more year? Perhaps. But it was also because the truth was a horrific way to deal with grief and no one had come up with something better.

The fairy tale was a ritual and you did it whether you believed it or not because that - not death - was the yawning deep. Luke thought he would be okay if there was no life after death, if just maybe there were reasons beneath our personal myths. But there weren't.

“Over to where? Can Mommy see me from there? She always said she could never sleep well unless she knew where I was.”

Luke helped his daughter into the car. He placed the gold bag on the passenger seat, where Jill would have been, and removed its contents. He found a lantern of sorts, a glass case with a candle and a picture of Jill. Where the hell that woman got the picture was a another question, but right now Luke was stunned by the care she'd taken and wished he'd been a little kinder.

“Do you ever dream of Mommy?” Luke said.

“All the time. She's asleep and I can't wake her up.”

Luke was afraid of that. Jill had taken too many painkillers that dreadful morning. Olivia had been asking for a juice box over and over and, upset by her mother's unresponsiveness, had jumped on the bed. Jill's body, already propped halfway off, had fallen in a lifeless lump on the floor. The girl had run to get her father.

Too late. That was Luke's recurring dream. At some point, the sound of the 911 operator faded and time stopped. As long as he believed Jill could be saved, her face was that of Sleeping Beauty. Then the moment of realization came and it transformed to the face of a corpse, familiar yet alien. Nothing had changed about her in that moment, only him.

They both felt guilty, but Olivia's was worse. Luke was too late to save his wife. His daughter, however, worried that maybe somehow she'd killed her own mother and was now going on about protecting her. No amount of words would cure it. She'd need stronger medicine.

“We'll light this candle every night.” he said. “Then she can find you and know you are safe, no matter where she is. And if you see her sleeping in your dreams, you'll know it's because she saw the light and could rest.”

“I like that idea Daddy.”

In time, the hurt inside Olivia would dull, even if stayed as a permanent arthritis throughout her life. In time the lantern would go away into a closet, just as the unicorn plushies and braids would give way to a prom dress and a job. Maybe someday Olivia would light the candle again, when she needed it, when she chose to, rather than suffer ghosts to haunt her forever.

image courtesy of pixabay

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