LOIS GREENE STONE - GRIEF
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian selected her photo to represent all teens from a specific decade.
Humming softly as she prepared dinner, Linda Miller noticed the backyard's blooming trees. Her almost-teenage daughter, Susan, ready to graduate from elementary school, mentioned special things she’d liked: 'after Dad raked fall leaves into tepee-shaped piles, he'd let me jump into them and roll around. Mom had to get the stuck ones off my sweaters.'
Linda smiled; she visualized the scene her daughter's words had set forth. Susan also said she was glad that many wishes made on first twinkling-stars at night really didn't come true because what was wanted at a moment wasn't wanted next day.
Bob seemed tired as he pushed the key into the deadbolt brass lock. Susan heard the sound, ran to open the door. "Hi, Daddy."
"Hi, princess," he said with a quiet sigh. This wasn't his usual cheerful hello. He pulled the long light cord to illuminate the small hall closet space, removed his felt hat straightening its wide grosgrain band, then carefully placed it on the top shelf. Then he hung his coat on a heavy wooden hanger, pulled the cord and the light went out.
"In the kitchen, honey," Linda called.
He walked over to her and kissed he with real affection. "I'm not too hungry, dear."
"But I have..," she stopped, wiped her hands on the cotton apron, then put the back of her palm against his forehead. "You don't look well. What's the matter."
"Indigestion, I guess. My chest hurts."
"Where'd you have lunch?" She looked at her handsome, thin husband and stared into his light blue eyes.
"I took a client to Luchows." He reached out his arms to circle her body.
"No wonder you have indigestion!" With an air of righteousness, she knew he'd eaten disagreeable food just to encourage business.
He smiled at her. He loved her and knew she loved him with the same caring, friendship, but not the same passion. She was nurturing and gentle; he felt as aroused, generally, when he touched her as he had as a groom. Tonight, however, he felt a heaviness behind his breastbone; it wouldn't go away.
"You're right. I ate wrong." He stroked the side of her right cheek and went upstairs. The flight seemed long and he paused midway to lean on the wide wooden bannister.
"Daddy? You all right?" Susan asked.
"Sure, monkey." He kissed the top of her head as he went by. He removed his suit jacket, went to the mirror by Linda's dressing table and studied his face. His dark straight hair, smoothed down with hair cream, was still in place. Did he look paler, he wondered? The large eyes showed fatigue. He slipped his pants' suspenders down, unbuttoned the ends, took them off. He bent over to untie his shoes but felt dizzy so he sat on the velvet dressing-table’s bench slowly removing them.
Susan came in. "Hi. Mom says you ate crap for lunch and don't feel well."
"Come here," Bob said gently and cupped his hand around her small face.
"Gotta go help Mom," she pulled away, turned, bit her pointer-finger nail and left the room.
Bob opened the tie knot and slid the silk patterned piece from his neck opening up the shirt’s collar. He unfastened the top button of his pants to relieve the pressure he was beginning to feel there. He exchanged his oxford shoes for camel colored leather slippers. "Oh, God," he said to the air, "keep me well so I can take care of my loved ones." Fear was forming in his head.
"Honey?" Linda's voice carried from the kitchen. "Come down and try some soup."
"I'll get him," Susan responded. She took two steps at a time first, found it too uncomfortable to stretch that much right now, ran up the rest. "Hi. At your service. Did you order me the Crane stationery? In yellow?"
"Uh, huh," Bob smiled weakly. "Would I forget?"
"Nope. Just wanted to be sure. Come. Take my arm. We'll play old movies Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers."
"Who'll be Fred Astaire?"
They got to the dinette. Soup steam seeped into the air from the rimmed bowls. It made Bob nauseated. "Honey. I'm going to lie on the couch for a few minutes."
"Call the doctor, Mother," Susan tried to sound grown-up. "He doesn't act like this unless he is really sick."
"Garbage for lunch. He wouldn't eat that at home." Linda tried to conceal her concern.
"Just call the doctor." Susan picked up the black phone. She rotated the dialer with the receiver still engaged.
"Don't play with the phone," Linda ordered. "Come eat, Susan."
Knowing when to stay out of trouble, Susan obeyed and sipped her soup with a slurping sound trying to keep the small noodles on her spoon.
"Stay here and eat," Linda tossed the linen towel she had hanging over her shoulder.
"You missed me," wisecracked Susan not realizing her mother was troubled.
Linda went into the living room. "Don't move. Don't even turn on the radio. I'll call the doctor. Just stay put, honey."
"I'm concerned about you and Susan should anything happen to me." Bob's eyes searched her face. "I know I'm not my father, but he died in his thirties."
"You're not dying," Linda assured.
"I love you." He touched her soft skin. "I've loved you since the day, when I was eighteen, I saw you on that blind date."
"I know." She gestured a loving sign and left to make a phone call. Within minutes, she returned, "I'll put Susan's food out and be back. The doctor said you're too young to have a heart attack and you probably have indigestion from lunch."
Bob's left arm felt heavy. He was afraid. "Monkey," he called faintly. "I love you. "
"I love you, too, Daddy." Susan had strained to hear what was going on in the living room.
"Don't you dare argue with me about these vegetables you hate." Linda put the food on the table, then went into the living room. "I'm here, honey."
"I'm frightened for you. I love you so much...and Susan... and life." His eyes closed and lungs no longer accepted air.
The week was filled with pain and shock. Little could be done to numb the intensity of either.
A cotton pique dress was suspended from a hanger that clasped over the door to Susan's room. Susan hated its shoulder pads. White flat shoes with ankle straps sat on the floor below the dress.
Susan talked to her walls. "Goodbye grade school; I'm now old." She touched the mother-of-pearl belt buckle. It felt cold. She looked around the room as if she were leaving it forever. "Guess I'm too old for you," she talked to her Terhune books about dogs. "But not you, ‘Winnie the Pooh’," she stroked the jacket. Her eyes found “Stars to Steer By”; "I'll never be too old for you, either."
"Are you dressing?" Linda called. Her voice was deep and unemotional.
Susan pulled the fragile slip over her head. "Some difference from the shapeless cotton I wore only a few years ago," she said aloud.
"Oh not today," Linda whispered to the air in her bedroom. "Honey," she reached for empty space holding out both arms, "I miss you."
Susan viewed the paper telling time-sequence for the day's event. Luncheon for graduates and their families to follow the ceremony. Families. "Half an orphan." She crumpled the paper in her slender hand, then, realizing it, tried to press it back into shape on the maple desk. She put a dictionary over it for weight. "Why'd you die, Daddy!"
Linda appeared in Susan's doorway. "Need any help?" Susan noticed how tired and old her mother seemed. She didn't understand her mother's grief but only truly felt her own.
"I'm fine," Susan lied.
"Let me know.” Fingers moved forward but pulled back. Physical contact would only start tears and clutching togetherness.
"Ma. Your stocking’s twisted." Susan noticed and spoke up.
Linda nodded several times with I-know-but-can't-do-anything-about-it movement. She walked back into her room. A brown wool dress was laid out on her side of the double bed; she still couldn't use the other side even to merely hold clothes. "I'll manage, honey." She talked to a spirit she felt within the walls. "I'll take care of Susan. You'll be proud." She lifted the dress. "Oh, God I miss you. We didn't get old together; we didn't even get old yet!" She turned and looked at the wedding portrait; innocent eyes met her gaze. She pressed her lips together and shook her head. "More innocent of life than I knew," she said to the oils.
"No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers dirty looks," sing-songed in Susan's head. "Not really a summer vacation ditty anymore. High school. Grown-up. I'm glad this is the end of elementary." She raised her arms and the dress fell over her head, into place. She tightened the belt, then sat on her bench before the triple mirror and parted her hair part very sharply. "Middle. That's almost. Again. Good." She pushed the silk flowers into place on either side of her head. "Wait 'till the teachers see this," she smirked. Raising one eyebrow, she put on a fake accent: "Dahling! You are not allowed to wear ze flowers in ze hair." She giggled a bit. Then, staring at the aqua flecks in her large grey eyes, she seemed to look beyond the mirror. "Daddy? Can you see me?" Her mood changed and she yelled as loudly as she could "You didn't have to die!"
"You think he wanted to die?" Linda understood her daughter's frustration and came running into the room to comfort her. "Susan, dear, he loved us. He loved living. He didn't kill himself. He died. He didn't want to die."
"Well, he changed everything. He had no right to go away and leave us here." Susan folded her arms across her chest. She tapped one white leather shoe with her right foot. "I'll never forgive him for leaving us." The tapping got faster.
Mascara began clumping on Linda's lashes as tears spilled from her sleepless eyes and she tried to embrace Susan. The tapping foot and clenched arms couldn't yet be halted.
"I hate you for letting him die. You didn't call the doctor right away. You blamed lunch for his chest pain. I hate you." Susan spit out sentences staccato.
"I didn't let him die." Linda choked as words came out. She coughed and continued. "Nothing could save him. He had a heart attack and, being young, the muscle had such a strong spasm it caused death. No one could have saved him. I did call the doctor," she defended.
"Doctors are supposed to make sick people better!" Susan stopped tapping as her foot was getting sore. She turned her back; her throat ached as it tried to contain tears from forming in her eyes.
Sobs emitted from Linda's body. Her underarms were getting wet. She went into her bathroom, locked the door, sat on the closed toilet seat and cried until she ached. Then, not wanting to ruin Susan's special day, she washed, removed the mascara that was now blackening both cheeks, and began to re-dress her face and body.
Susan held both hands over her ears blotting out the sounds her mother was making. Part of her expected to really see her dad again, and the cemetery and mourning ritual was just some sort of game or test. She removed the dictionary; the paper was still wrinkled. "An old fashioned bouquet will be given to all girl graduates before the procession," she read aloud. "Girls enter from the left, boys the right, both meet as rehearsed, and pair off to march down the center aisle. Separate. Girls seat left. Boys seat right." She stood upright, smoothed out her dress.
The ankle straps pulled as she walked around her room. She loosened the metal fasteners. On the back of her door, she'd once hung a prayer of thanks for family, health, friendships: Bless this house, oh, Lord, I pray. Make it safe both night and day. Bless.... She tore it from its thumb tacks and placed it in the metal wastebasket.
Linda re-appeared. "We are still a family. Let's graduate."
Susan slid her hand into her mother's, squeezed it hard, nodded. "I'm sorry, Mom. I just don't know how to deal with this."
"Me neither, honey." A sigh left Linda's lips. "We'll learn together."
A longer version was published April 1997 Rochester Shorts; ©1990 Lois Greene Stone