Lesson 8. Final assignment.
|Fourteen degrees below zero again. The frigidness felt white. Vast icy, white, snow encased objects decorated the landscape in undulating uneven mounds. Kristin could not hate this mirror image of the state of her heart. It felt like home. Father Mike said she was obligated to try to function for the sake of the children. Sometimes she could muster up enough spirit to hate Father Mike for being right. This was not one of those days. Today, she would let the numb breathe.
Kristin stood at the grave marker gently dusting the layer of snow off the rounded stone and off the etched lettering for Staff Sergeant Anthony Lanny Ross. “You picked a fine time to leave me, Tony. I can’t be mad at you. I should. I really should. Just love you so much, man. Do you remember how we met? The baseball game?”
Her father raised his four daughters to be athletic powerhouses, determined to win. Kristin was the best player on her high school team, and the only girl. It was either keep up with the boys’ baseball team or suffer with the twitters on the track and field girls’ team.
As she ambled up to take her turn at bat, she surveyed the field. She could hear the buzz and taunts from the opposing team bench. She picked her target. The right fielder was the loudest and would be on the receiving end of her practiced delivery.
Kristin watched with inner delight when the pitcher's smile slowly faded as she stepped over the plate to hit left handed instead of right as he expected. Any serious player knows baseball is rigged for southpaws, especially when the pitcher is right-handed. Kristin took an instant dislike to the pitcher. Just by the smirk on his face, Kristin wanted the next hit to drive the ball does his throat.
“Ball two!” This pitcher was going to walk her. She was not very good with trash talk, but she had to try.
“Come on, Bad Boy. Didn’t your papa teach you to pitch?” Well, it got a good laugh if nothing else.
Up to this point, he was going low and outside. If his pattern held, the next one would be a fast ball, high and inside. Kristin knew the second he drew his right hand back that he would instead deliver a stunning curve ball. She stepped in and put all of her weight into the swing. The crack of the bat connecting with the ball was enough to silence the jokers on the opposing team. She could still feel the vibrations up and down her arms as she rounded the bases. She could have been nice, but she didn’t want to. She did not just cross home plate – she jumped on it and did her happy dance on it.
The catcher was standing back waiting for the ball to be thrown in. “Congrats. Nice hit.”
The cold was starting to penetrate Kristin’s focus. She stomped her feet to get the blood circulating again. Her voice husky from her stuffed up nose and sniffles that drifted into her comments. “Do you remember that, Tony? Do you remember congratulating me after my home run? Do you remember the teasing we got from both schools? Do you remember I had to chase you down in Germany? Do you remember? Dang it, Tony, why did you have to go?”
Maybe one day these visits would not hurt so much. Maybe one day she would not be magnetically pulled to the peaceful solitude of this cemetery where Tony was laid to rest. Maybe.
“Bye, love. Mom said she would stop over. Cindy is watching the kids but she has a date tonight. I have to go and pretend to be whole.”
Trudging through the snow was the only exercise Kristin could muster on days like this. She tried to be grateful that she had a job, a home, her kids. Father Mike should be proud of her for trying. You would think. At least the slow marching steps allowed her brain to focus on not falling and release the many other mundane trivialities that vied for her attention. It also meant that her heart beat faster, her breath would push in and out with frosty wisps, and the parka would trap the heat from her exertion and let the sweat plaster her t-shirt against her torso. The sorrow usually kept the feelings firmly encased out of reach. The sweaty t-shirt was her trophy that her heart still worked.
At the vehicle, Kristin fumbled through her pockets for her keys. It’s so hard to manage keys with frozen fingers. She caught her pathetic reflection in the driver’s side window. Tears were not necessary when it was so cold. What did daddy always say? Hands on hips, drill sergeant delivery: “Kristin! Soldier up! Nobody respects a crybaby.” She learned. No crying. Better to take a bat and drill baseballs as hard as she could. Since Tony died, she was not allowed to cry and had no desire to do any sport at all. The enemy stole more from her than they could ever guess.
Kristin had been driving the SUV on auto pilot. The incessant horn honking filtered through her consciousness. Who was this idiot honking his horn incessantly? She did not care. It was a long time since she cared about anything. She put him aside and followed the other traffic to the freeway entrance.
Kristin picked up speed to get into the highway traffic. This doesn’t feel right sifted into her thoughts. A soft curse introduced the loud pop and the telltale flapping of the rubber spinning its way off the tire rim. She managed to tug the steering wheel enough and bring the vehicle to a lopsided stop in the emergency stop lane. She stared out the windshield listening to the quiet hum of the traffic rushing by. Should she get out and check when she already knew what happened? Father Mike would be so proud of her for not losing her temper. This blowout presented a problem. She would be late getting home. Kristin’s mittens got stuck on the keyring but she had to turn the car off. A tear traced its way down her cheek as she fumbled with the picture of her kids’ smiling faces on the key fob. Kristin barely noticed that the heat in the vehicle was slowly being replaced by the cold air drifting in from the vents. A quick exhale and absorbing the tear in her mitten was enough to bring her out of her reverie.
That hurt. She slammed her head against the headrest again. And again. Raising and dropping her head in rhythmic cadence, over and over. Pain seemed to be the only thing that got through the numbness.
The light taps on the window increased in urgency. Kristin recognized the man who had incessantly honked his horn. She did not care then, she did not care now. She deliberately turned her attention to the fog forming on the edges of the windshield and the cars that had slowed down in their race to get where they were going.
She felt the cold snap of the frigid temperature when he pulled the door open. “Ma’am, do you need help?”
Kristin turned her lifeless eyes upon him. “No.”
“You need the motor running to keep warm while you wait for help.”
“You have a blown tire. Have you called for help?”
With a quiet sigh, hands folded in her lap, her voice a monotonous string of rushed words. “I know. I’ll be fine. Thank you for your concern.”
“Ma’am, I’m calling for help. Do you have anyone at home I should call?”
That’s when the tears fell. Slowly at first and then a continuous hiccupping weep. There was a time, a good cry made her feel better. For Kristin, tears only hardened her heart to hate those who murdered her husband, those horrible people who made and set IEDs. Those cowards. Those – those creatures – those monsters -- stole the happy, leaving her gazing on events occurring around her with eyes that had no longer had light left in them.
Two hours late getting home and now mom was stressed and the kids had gone off to hang out with their friends. Kristin expected a long night with mom clucking about irresponsibility and not having common sense to winterize the vehicle. Mom surprised her. Mom was zeroed in on Kristin’s mental health after Tony died. Mom was no longer sympathetic about her weekly treks to the cemetery.
“That’s where you began to die. A little at a time. Over time. A slow assault on your being. And it got you here. Is this what you want?”
Dee loved her daughter and she had to try to reach through her daughter Kristin’s misery. Her daughter was a sturdy woman with the long blonde curls. Today, she stared out the window at the snow covered hedgeline. The bleak ice-encrusted landscaped mirrored the state of her soul, “I wouldn’t mind if it picked up the pace.”
“Kristin! Do you know what you are saying?”
Kristin hugged herself with slow brushes up and down her arms. She was too tired after the events of the day to lie. Yes, she had thought about it. A lot. Sometimes she wished she could feel. She confessed, “It’s been almost two years since the Army sent Tony back to me – what was left of him. You ever see somebody after they get blown up? He is the only man I have ever loved. And they took him from me. Tell me. What joy is there now?”
Kristin felt her mom’s arms sneak around her waist and her head rest between her shoulder blades, “Kristin, honey, you have kids …”
The bitterness in her voice could not be masked, “I know. And I have a job. And I have Cindy to help me. And I have a roof over my head. And I have things. What I don’t have is Tony.”
“Oh, my sweet baby girl …”
Kristin extracted herself from her mom’s embrace. “I’ll be fine. Really. I need to get supper ready. Cindy and the kids will be back soon.”
“Kristin it’s not normal for two sisters to cocoon like this when you are both so young.”
“No one is forcing her.”
Dee accused, “You are.”
Kristin’s hands stung from slamming them against the window panes. She snapped, “Knock it off, Mom. The only one who did not have a choice in this arrangement is me. Excuse me.”
“Ouch!” Dee massaged her hip where it rammed into the edge of the table.
“I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”
Kristin grabbed her mom close, “Oh, Mom.”
“Do you know you are petting my hair like a puppy?”
“Not even a courtesy chuckle?”
Kristin gave her mother a smile as she held her mother’s face with both hands, “Nope. Not even that.”
“Sweetie, do you know there is no light in your eyes. You smile but it does not reach your eyes. That can’t be good for your kids. When was the last time you had a good cry? Did you ever mourn?”
Kristin brushed her lips against her mom’s forehead. “Soldier up. Go set the table. I have to make supper.”
Dee could not let it go. She should have opened drawers and doors to find the table settings. She should have just let it go. She could not. “Your dad did not expect you to suck it up like this. Honey, one day you are going to explode ….”
Kristin slamming her hands on the counter in front of her, the fury in her eyes stopped Dee’s advice. “Explode? Like my Tony? Is there an IED buried out there? Want them to take me out like they did my Tony?”
Dee tugged on Kristin’s arm that had snapped in front of her face to point out the window, “That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
The bitterness could not be disguised, “Yeah, I know. Everybody knows what’s best for me except me.”
Dee could not stand that her beautiful little girl turned into this bitter creature who could only express anger or the blankness of a black hole for emotion. “Just stop it. The kids --”
“My son enlisted.”
Dee slapped both hands on Kristin’s face to pull her close, “Be proud of TJ. He will be fine.”
Kristin’s tears escaped. She finally cracked. “I can’t lose him, too. I can’t take this.” Kristin crumbled into her mom’s arms.
Dee embraced Kristin. “Don’t change the subject. Weep for your Tony. That’s right. Just let it out. For as long as it takes.”
“Not a crybaby!”
“Shh, mourn your man. Just let it out. A good cry is good for your soul. Let it out, my precious baby girl.”
Kristin muttered again, “Not a crybaby.”
“No, baby girl. Not a crybaby. Just letting go.”