A coming of age story (sort of).
|“Mom, guess what happened today!” Sam said as he dropped his bag on the floor.
“What?” I asked.
“Kyle brought his snake in for show and tell.”
Sam was so excited about the snake that he was barely able to eat the snack I had prepared. This was my favorite time of day. He would tell me all about his day and I would check him over, always afraid of some new bump or bruise. Kindergarten could be really rough.
“Was the snake in a cage?” I asked as I poured some more milk.
“Yes but he took it out. I got to touch it. It was really smooth. Mom, can I get a snake?”
Do all parents go through this? I hated snakes but I also knew we couldn’t afford any kind of pet.
“Sam, we’ve talked about this. We can’t afford any pets, just yet.”
“But Mom, it would be in a cage and it wouldn’t eat very much.”
I didn’t want to break his heart but I was just getting back on my feet after my husband, Ted, died. I worked at home so I could be with Sam but that didn’t mean things were easy for us. “Why don’t we wait for a few months to see how things go?”
“Ok,” he said, disappointed, then “we are having a Harvest party at school soon. What’s a harvest party?”
“That’s just another word for Halloween. Do you get to dress up for the party?”
That’s when he handed me the flyer from his teacher. No, they wouldn’t be able to dress up at school but there would be fun and games for all the kids. At least he could dress up and go trick or treating.
“What do you want to be for Halloween?”
“Pirate,” he said with conviction.
Sam had a love affair with pirates ever since he saw his first pirate movie. I should have guessed. At least he didn’t want to be a monster or zombie or something.
“Can I go play at Jimmy’s?” He said finishing his snack.
“Ok, be home before dark.” I said knowing he wouldn’t and I would have to call Jimmy’s mother to send him home. It’s a good thing that Jimmy lived right next door. At least I would be able to get some more work done while he was there.
I helped him with his coat and sent him on his way. I still had a lot of work to do before I could quit for the day. I sighed and thought about how difficult my life is now. My life consisted of being Sam’s mom and work. I never had to worry about anything when Ted was alive. We were so happy and I thought it would always be that way. Life doesn’t always work out the way we expect. Ted was gone and we were on our own.
After Ted’s death, I moved Sam back to my hometown. It is a small town where everyone knows each other. There are still celebrations in the town square for things like Founder’s Day and Independence Day. Everyone knows each other and my family still lives in the area. I wanted Sam to get to know his grandparents and his aunt’s and uncles. I hadn’t been back since I got married. My parents didn’t approve of my marriage, especially my dad. Ted and I both tried to get through to them but in the end there was only silence.
Just as I settled down to my work the phone rang.
“Hello,” I said.
“Ellie, your father is ill,” my mother’s voice was sharp on the other end of the line.
My heart skipped a beat as I asked, “How serious is it?”
“It’s his heart. The doctor’s think it is serious, he is in room #317 at Mercy.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I make arrangements for Sam,” I told her.
There was no goodbye as my mother hung up the phone apparently assured that I would come. Things hadn’t been good between us ever. I was more of a Daddy’s girl. Growing up, he and I were close. He thought I was brilliant and could be whatever I wanted to be. Apparently, that didn’t include being a wife and mother. He was disappointed by my small dreams. I wondered if we would be able to get past all of the hurt and anger now that he was so ill.
I quickly put my work away and phoned Jimmy’s house. As I made arrangements for Sam to spend the evening and possibly the night I thought about all the years since Ted and I got married. Mom would never go against Dad and so I hadn’t spoken to her much since then either. I think that she was secretly glad that Dad and I weren’t speaking anymore, she had always been jealous. I was never the daughter that she wanted, there was too much of him in me. I still missed them both.
While driving to the hospital, I noticed that the leaves had finally changed into their fall costumes. I had forgotten how beautiful fall was. Ted and I lived in a big city and the leaves didn’t change colors much, they just dried up and fell off. Dad and I used to go to the apple orchard down the street to pick apples for Mom each fall. He loved apple pie and she knew how to make it just right. There were tears in my eyes making it difficult to see. I wanted so much for things to be right between us again. I also wanted my parents to meet their grandson. My parent’s disappointment in my marriage had manifested in silence and that included Sam. Even though I had moved back to town they had made no effort to see me or Sam. I guess my father’s illness has kept them away. I can still delude myself.
Walking into my father’s room, my stomach was tied in knots. It had been eight years since we had spoken and then it had been in anger. A million things went through my mind. What would he say to me? Would he be able to speak at all? Is he still angry at me after all of these years? My father was lying in the bed with tubes and wires hooked up and in him. He looked smaller than my memory of him. I was shocked to see an old man.
“Hi Dad,” I said.
“You’re here,” his voice was thin and weak.
The room was empty except for Dad and the machines that were keeping him alive. A feeling of expectation filled the room. My stomach tightened further. The silence kept growing and I felt more and more awkward as he stared at me.
“How are you feeling?” I asked. What a dumb question?
His face never changed expression, “I’m proud of you,” he said quietly.
Ripples of shock went through me I had thought my life had been such a disappointment to him.
“...made your own decisions,” he went on, “you never let anything stop you.”
“Dad, you taught me that, remember, you always said “Ellie, never give up”.
“I’m so sorry Dad that things have turned out the way they have.”
“Not your fault. I was stubborn and so was your mother.”
“What does Mom have to do with this?” I asked.
“She wanted you to be somebody and do something with your life.
“But Dad, she always fought against whatever I did especially we did something together,” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Where is she?
“Is that why she isn’t here now?”
“Yes.” I could tell he was growing more tired.
“She was the one who was disappointed that I chose her life, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” this time barely a whisper, he was drifting off.
“Wanted to make it right before .. too .. late,” he finished.
“I love you Dad.”
“Love you, El,” with that he closed his eyes. Gazing at him, I saw his age even more clearly. I’ll never see him alive again, I thought. Realizing I was holding his hand, I was reluctant to let go. There were questions I needed answers to. I kissed his forehead and went looking for them.
As I walked out of Room 317, I saw my mother off to the side in the waiting room, hiding. I walked up to her and she wouldn’t meet my eyes. The more she avoided me the more angry I became. I sat down on the hard, scratchy sofa next to her. I could feel her body trembling.
“Mom, what’s going on?” I asked quietly, not revealing the anger I felt.
She wouldn’t even look at me. At that moment I thought she hated me, turns out I wasn’t far from wrong.
“You shouldn’t have been born,” she stated quietly. “I didn’t want to have children, I wanted to travel abroad, bringing medicine to those who needed it. I wanted more than the dreary servitude my mother lived. That’s what was expected of me and we weren’t even able to talk about it.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“I had hoped for a boy. He would have done something with his life. Instead, I had a girl. Girls don’t have choices. Yes, it should have been a boy.” It was like she wasn’t even talking to me anymore. Shocked and dazed at my mother’s confession, I could barely comprehend that she wasn’t done.
“Your father was so happy to have a daughter. He couldn’t see that I was unhappy and when the news came that more children weren’t an option, he said that one was enough. I wanted to cry and scream that it was all wrong, that we...I needed to have a son so that he could get out of this life of misery. That what I lived for.” She began to sob.
It was then that she looked at me. I’m not sure what she saw in my face, but she tried to reach out to me.
“Ellie, I’m sorry,” she said.
“You’re sorry,” I could barely contain myself. “You’re sorry for hating me all of these years. You made all of us miserable with your anger and hate, Dad included.” I felt the tears start and I knew I didn’t want to be around her any longer.
“I didn’t want you to end up like me,” she said sounding tired.
“There was no in between for you, was there? I couldn’t be a wife and mother and have a career. It was one or the other. Well guess what, Mother! I did it. I did both. I have both a career and a family life. Too bad you can’t be a part of it.”
With that I turned and walked down the hall. I barely took in the white walls and gleaming floors as I walked to the elevator. I don’t remember driving home through the rain. I let myself in through the side door into the kitchen. Blindly, I made myself a cup of tea with shaking hands. My mind couldn’t comprehend what was going on. I curled up in my favorite chair with my grandmother’s afghan and sipped my tea. Exhaustion soon set in and sleep overtook me.
I awoke to a ringing phone and I stumbled to answer it.
“Hello,”I said groggily.
“Ellie, this is Aunt Edna. I have some bad news.” Aunt Edna paused.
My heart nearly stopped, “Is it Dad?”
“No, honey, your Dad will recover. It’s your mother,” she replied.
I sat down hard unable to take in the news. My mother was the healthy one.
Aunt Edna went on, “She had a heart attack sometime in the night. She is dead, Ellie.”
I went numb from the shock. This couldn’t be happening. She was fine when I left her last night.
“Ellie, your father is asking for you.”
“I’ll be right there,” my mind finally cleared.
The next few days were a complete blur. My father recovered enough to attend my mother’s funeral. Sam finally had a grandpa and they were both getting to know each other. I, along with my aunts, took care of all the arrangements so Dad wouldn’t have to worry. I was just happy he was getting better.
We buried my mother on a sunny, clear day. The trees were in full color now and the cemetery was beautiful. I realized that she was finally at peace after a lifetime of unhappiness. I also realized that I was at peace. I couldn’t change the past but I could change the future. Pushing Dad’s wheelchair away from her grave I knew what I was meant to do. I would live a life fully lived.