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The flickering of the fire seemed to paint a visual of her life. Ever changing, sparking, dying out, only to catch and burn again, needing oxygen, craving attention. Pulling the quilt tighter around herself, Nita wondered if the flames knew what life next held in store for her. They danced with a confidence she didn’t possess. At times the heat was comforting, and at other times she felt it mocking her as life so often had. Closing her eyes, the fire’s crackling spoke, singing of memories sweet and painful. The smokey scent penetrated her pores. Nita found herself whispering to the fire, begging for comfort, for a new beginning. She was deserving of happiness. It was her turn now.
Grabbing the brandy bottle to freshen her coffee, she noticed with surprise that it was empty. Perhaps this is why she found herself praying to the fireplace. She giggled at the thought. The laughter was interrupted by her sobs. This shouldn’t be so hard. People deal with so much worse in their lives. Why wasn’t she stronger? But this wasn’t other people’s lives, it was hers. So much had been explained, and even more had been ripped out from under her with one short letter. The letter fueling the fire.
Twenty-eight years she spent trying to fit in, and yet never feeling a sense of belonging. She felt loved and secure. Somehow though, she felt left out. The more her family gave her, the more she hurt.
Family gatherings were the worst. She felt eyes looking at her differently than at everyone else. The glances weren't unkind, but rather secretive. When all the other children wanted chocolate ice cream and she wanted vanilla, they would nod and smile in that "knowing" way. No words would be exchanged, but they might as well as shouted, "Of course, sweet Nita would choose something different." Cousins begged her to join in their outside games. Reluctantly, she would, but her true desire was to be inside drawing or reading.
These differences bothered her, causing her to question her originality rather than embrace it. Once, she had asked her mother why she was so different from the rest of the family. Her mother dismissed her with a laugh, saying everyone feels different sometimes. But Nita felt it all the time. It created a wall around her heart. Confusion over her sense of not belonging brought a detachment she could not overcome.
She went through the motions of unconditional love, but in her heart she felt no connection. It wasn’t for lack of trying. She wanted to love them the way they did her, longed for it. She imitated their actions thinking it would come, but the most she could feel was a respect for them. To Nita this confirmed she was less, not worthy, incapable of feeling one of the most common emotions - love. Once again, different. It ate at her soul and heart; for if you couldn’t love a family devoted to you, then who could you love?
And now the letter. Wondering, as she watched it turn into ashes, if she would be sorry that she had given it to the fire. No doubt her drunken state had made that decision, but would it be one more in her life that she regretted? Such a simple letter that said so much:
You are the child I’ve always dreamed of having. I knew it from the day you were laid in my arms. I have loved and given you everything that I could. Except, the truth. It was out of selfishness and fear that I kept it from you. For that I will never forgive myself, nor do I expect your forgiveness. I do ask that you please not hold this against your father, for he only kept silent because of my pleas.
You are my daughter, and I have tried to be your mother. But, my dear, you were adopted.
It was burned in her mind, the written words running like the credits to a movie, fast and furious. The plain white paper, the neat cursive writing. Her stomach clenched as she envisioned her mother sitting at the tidy desk carefully composing it. Had she shed a tear? Or was her hand calm and steady? The fire and quilt no longer provided any warmth as the chill came from the inside out. Nausea overwhelmed her. Nita rose, stumbling her way to the bathroom. Grabbing the small, hallway table for balance, the drawer jarred open. Nita caught a glimpse of the glistening scissors and instinctively picked them up. She heard her mother’s voice sing warnings about not running with scissors.
“I’m not running, Mother. I’m walking in a drunken stupor,” she said aloud to an empty house.
Reaching the bathroom, she slid down to the cool tile floor. Her stomach threatened to take control of her body. She looked down at the scissors in her hand. They seemed to be glaring up at her. It was no mystery to her why she held them. She knew she wouldn’t use them, that part of her life was over. But if she knew the truth all along, would she have ever sought solace in such a bizarre way? The sobbing ended, but the silent tears fell for a lifetime of “what ifs.”
“Mother, why didn’t you tell me!” she cried, resting her head on the bathroom floor.
The first time she cut herself was an accident. She was cutting some holes in her jeans, like the cool kids in school wore, and the scissors had slipped and cut her finger. The memories of watching the blood run down her hand, and the euphoria she felt at the release still brought a rush. Scissors were soon replaced by razor blades. Anytime Nita felt frustration at not being able to love her parents as she should, she sought the sight and feel of her blood. It confirmed she was alive. It made sense now, her feeling an outsider. Had she known, maybe she would have forgiven herself, not doubted her sanity.
“Mom, you knew what I was doing. Why? Why?”
It was all she could get out before her stomach wretched and heaves forced her to purge the coffee and brandy. Her long, brown hair matted with sweat on her face and neck. Even this reminded her of times with her mother. Thoughts overwhelmed her of a washcloth to the forehead, her mother’s hand holding her hair back. Her mother was always there — every stomach flu, strep throat infection, ear ache, or cold. She unselfishly gave comfort, never leaving her side. If she could give me all this, why not the truth? Maybe that was all I needed to be able to love. Maybe that was the missing piece to the puzzle of my life.
Nita stood leaving the scissors by the toilet. That memory was best left behind. She steadied herself by keeping a hand on the wall, guiding her to the bedroom. Her eyes swollen from crying, she relied on touch to make her way. She sank carefully onto her bed, not bothering to undress. Curling her knees up to her chest, Nita wondered why people feared the darkness. She loved the black of night. It was a time when she felt invisible, like she could fade away. The room began to spin, and she felt the burn of the brandy in the pit of her stomach. Everything was accentuated. The sound of her own breath sounded magnified. The squeaking of the porch swing outside her window reminded her of crazed chipmunks.
“Chipmunks, Daddy,” she whispered into her pillow.
It had been a weekly tradition. The image clear in her mind. The three of them walking hand in hand through the park. They commented on everything they saw: autumn leaves, blue jays, ant hills, and chipmunks. Oh, she loved the chipmunks. They scampered so free and fast. Smiling, she remembered for a while her father had called her “Chipmunk” for that very reason. These were the times she tried to hold on to. Times she hoped her parents remembered. Parents? Were they her parents? What made people your parents?
So many questions kept her from drifting into a drunken slumber. If she had known her feelings of not belonging weren’t irrational, would she have made different choices along the way? Was it the confusion that had made her search for love in one man’s bed after another? Drift from dead end job to dead end job? Drink until sleep overtook her night after night? Or was it just her destiny that this be her life?
“Mother, why a letter? And, why now?” she mumbled.
What was the date today? November 22. Nothing special about that date. Why did it matter how or why? She thought of her mother and what she must be doing now. A better person would have called her when they received the letter, forgiven her, provided the mother comfort they knew she needed. Nita hadn’t even thought to do that then. She sat up now in bed, rocking back and forth. She knew her mother would be hurting, her father, too. They had given a lifetime to her, and though they would never verbalize it, she knew she at times had been a burden.
She pictured her parents’ home, still a shrine to her. Photographs filled every corner of the house. Poetry she had written in Junior High was framed proudly. A wall still showed markings measuring her height every few months growing up. Her five-year-old hand prints in plaster still hung over the fireplace. That reminded her, she’d best put the fire out.
Returning to the living room, she couldn’t bring herself to extinguish the fire. She found herself lost in it for the second time that night. Her thoughts coming full circle. Watching the flames, she felt something foreign to her – a sense of understanding. She was justified in her feelings of being lost growing up. But not now. What had it cost her mother to reveal this to her? Too much for a person to have to bare. Her mother knew Nita might reject her now, blame her, hate her. And in a way she had, but not just tonight, every day of her life.
Nita envisioned her mother on the couch in her father’s arms crying softly, scared of losing their daughter. She could see him kiss her forehead, trying to be strong. She thought of all the trips to the park. The chipmunks. She thought of who was there to clean each cut and try to hide the scissors and razors. She remembered the forgiveness given after each drunken binge. Again, her mind drifted to her mother writing the letter. Nita had no doubt that it was the hardest thing she had ever done. But somehow her mother knew Nita needed the truth to be free. She had tried everything else to bring Nita happiness. Now she risked her own happiness by revealing the secret she carried. Her mother had not followed her own heart, but sought to open Nita’s.
Nita stared in a trance at the fire, watching some of the flames die while others burned strongly. She was tired of dying. She was tired of blaming. She had freedom now. Parts of life would always be a mystery, but she had some understanding now. She understood about sacrifice, about choices, about others. She had a better understanding of herself.
This new discovery of who she wasn’t confirmed who she wanted to be. Her heart broke with the thought of her parents in pain. She reached passed the brandy bottle for the phone. Dialing the number, she felt a new beginning to a world that made a little sense now. It was finally a world she felt she had some say in, that her voice mattered.
Her mother answered with a quiet hello after the first ring.
“Mom, I just called to say I love you.” And for the first time in her life Nita knew she meant it.
WC - 2021