Back in Oregon, Isabelle arrived at room ICU-12 with an arrangement of artificial flowers. She hoped Harriet would be alert, or at least awake, and able to enjoy them. Isabelle wasn’t a fan of what she called fake flowers, but she had to pick which ICU rules to follow and which to bend. When she arrived, her aunt appeared to be in the same vegetative state as when she left. She was disappointed but didn’t let it affect her spirits. She felt strangely good about their visit in San Francisco.
Isabelle sat, legs crossed, in the oversized leather hospital recliner beside her aunt’s bed and pulled out her smart phone to respond to a few emails. Just as she started typing, a nurse, who just as Harriet described, had an uncanny resemblance to her cousin, peeked in to check on the patient. And just like in Harriet’s description, her name badge was turned around. It was probably a coincidence. Clearly her aunt had not been alert enough to make this connection.
Arnie called to let Isabelle know he was bringing Grace up to the second floor. Kids technically weren’t allowed in the ICU but the nurses had kindly overlooked this rule, and Isabelle made every attempt to be discreet hoping they would continue to look the other way. Isabelle grabbed her bags and stepped outside the ICU into the family waiting area.
When she heard the patter of running feet, Isabelle instantly recognized the cadence of the approaching skip. Seconds later, Grace showed up. “Daddy and I had ice cream after school today and I got two scoops,” Grace informed her mother before Arnie even arrived. Normally, Isabelle would scold Arnie for giving her so much sugar and ruining the child’s appetite for dinner. But today, Isabelle paused and nonchalantly slid the orange she brought for Grace back into her jacket pocket right as Arnie walked through the door. They smiled weakly at each other. Relax, Isabelle. Don’t make this a bigger deal than it is. Isabelle went to great lengths to appear calmer than she felt.
Isabelle was sitting down when Grace jumped into her lap and wrapped her arms around her mom. Arnie hadn’t talked to Isabelle about the ice cream, and she felt he should have known she wouldn’t approve. But it was done now. So this time, she skipped the lecture altogether, both to Grace and Arnie, and simply inquired about which flavors the child chose. Her eyes opened wide when Grace told her, “It was so yummy.”
Maybe Harriet had a point. Maybe she had been unnecessarily hard on Arnie. Maybe, she thought, nagging him the last several years hadn’t actually helped him improve, and may have in fact chipped away at their relationship. Isabelle never would have admitted this aloud, but the thought did cross her mind.
Zach arrived a few minutes later, alone, without his willowy girlfriend with the unpleasant demeanor. What? No whatever-her-name-is didn’t follow you? Zach greeted Arnie as if Isabelle was invisible. The men talked about an upcoming game they both seemed quite enthusiastic about, while Grace sat on Isabelle’s lap and told her about every detail of her day at school. Isabelle loved the raw excitement with which Grace always shared her activities. Being the mother of a child who found the whole world and everything in it so amazing filled Isabelle with a sense of wonder and joy. Grace brought magic to Isabelle’s world. Isabelle wanted to focus completely on what her little girl was saying, but she kept one ear on the conversation across the room by the vending machine, where Arnie and Zach were laughing and joking. Isabelle remembered when Arnie used to bring magic to her world, when he made everything seem new and possible. But those days were behind them now.
These days, the mere sight of Arnie made Isabelle feel miserable and depressed. She desperately wanted to see him differently – to see him the way she once had. It was as if he had intentionally taken everything that she hoped for and once believed was possible and pushed it off a cliff for it to break in a hundred pieces below.
She had her reasons. Somewhere along the line he stopped investing in a future for the three of them and shifted his attention to hobbies without dividends and fantasy football teams that consumed his time and money. She once thought to herself that if there was one thing she would change about Arnie, it would be how obsessed he was with every sport and every game that entered his peripheral view. But then there were so many other things that drove her just as crazy, so she consciously opted to tune out the men and focus exclusively on her precious daughter in her lap. Acutely aware of how quickly time would pass, she tried to savor every story and moment with the child.
“How was your trip?” Zach interrupted the story about butterflies Grace was telling.
“Your trip? You were gone?” Arnie asked.
“I had a quick conference in San Francisco. It was good. Flight was bumpy but the trip was good,” Isabelle shared. Purposefully returning her gaze to Grace, she quickly shifted her focus. “Were there yellow butterflies too?”
Arnie didn’t want the subject changed. “You went to San Francisco and didn’t tell me?” Arnie questioned his estranged wife.
“It was a quick business trip. You had Grace. I was there less than 24 hours.” Isabelle’s tone defended her lack of sharing. She had actually wanted to share with Arnie that she was going, but she intentionally held back knowing their relationship was changing and she needed to change in response to that. He was no longer her person. She needed to stop clearing her life with him. He certainly never cleared his with her. Still, while she knew Zach was probably stirring the pot, she was glad he did in this instance. She wanted Arnie to know she was capable of the independence he had often said he wished she’d embrace when she challenged him on the amount of time he devoted to pursuing his own ambitions.
“Did you go,” Arnie paused, “anywhere?” He let the question hang. He wanted to ask if she went to any of their favorite places, but he too was editing, assuming she didn’t want to share anything with him, or she would have told him about her trip. Isabelle loved watching him squirm because when he did, he looked the way she felt every time they disagreed – restless and unsettled.
As Isabelle replayed the crumbling of their marriage in her mind, there were hundreds of little moments when either of them could have thrown the gears into neutral. This moment would join her closet of regrets unless Arnie took the initiative to turn the conversation around. He didn’t.
“Let’s see. Did I go anywhere? Well, I had a conference. I went to the conference, Arnie, and I went out to eat and did some shopping. I don’t know what you’re implying,” she said. Isabelle knew exactly what she was implying and what it was doing to him.
In some ways, she felt as if she were giving karma a nudge for how he had made her feel over the years. Isabelle’s tone turned lighter as she spoke to Grace. “Do you want to see what I got you?” Her eyes genuinely twinkled when she turned to her child. For seconds Arnie held onto that look. He knew that look of excitement in Isabelle’s eyes, excitement that was conspicuously not directed at him.
“What did you get me?” Grace wiggled and squealed. Isabelle pulled out a pastel-colored slicker. It was printed in a pink- and yellow-striped pattern with Minnie Mouse in a hot pink dress and Disney heels just below the left shoulder. Grace loved Minnie Mouse and all things Disney, as did Isabelle.
“Here, try it on,” Isabelle prodded. The raincoat fit perfectly and Grace loved it. She twirled around the waiting room in circles like a ballerina before returning to her mother’s lap. Isabelle hoped Zach would retract his mother of the year award comment from a few days back, but he didn’t. She didn’t buy the raincoat to impress her brother, after all. She wanted to make her little girl smile, and that she accomplished.
“Well I guess I’ll see you Saturday when you pick up Grace,” Arnie said as he walked back toward the elevator.
Arnie and Isabelle had developed a habit of walking out on each other every time the conversation got tense. They bickered, but they didn’t fight with each other or for each other, and as such, far too much went unsaid. Years of crunchy, unexpressed emotions had ultimately created two people who didn’t talk and each resented the other one for it. At various times, each had suggested counseling, but even then their timing was off. He made efforts when she blew him off and she made efforts when he couldn’t make time. About all they had holding them together was the child they both loved. Grace jumped down from her mom’s lap and went running down the hall after Arnie to hug her dad goodbye.
Back in the waiting room, Isabelle was left with the other man in her life she didn’t understand well and with whom she also struggled to communicate. Why? She wondered if it was her – if she was the common denominator. But she quickly dismissed that thought.
“How is Harriet doing?” Zach asked. He didn’t look up at Isabelle as he asked. He was typing something on his phone, which gave Isabelle the distinct impression he was making conversation but didn’t really care.
“Same,” Isabelle said, hoping her one-word answer would get his attention or prompt him to ask if everything was okay. It didn’t.
“I suppose we should start thinking about a service,” Zach nonchalantly stated. “Do you have a list of people we need to inform when she passes?” he asked. Harriet had been sick in the past and always recovered. Isabelle hadn’t even considered that their aunt wouldn’t rally once again.
“The doctors haven’t given up. Let’s not pull the sheet over her head yet,” Isabelle snapped at her brother.
“Izz! I’m just saying we ought to prepare ourselves that she may not get better. I know it scares you to think like that but we have to come to terms. And it might be sooner than we’re ready for,” Zach reasoned. “All I’m saying is we may need to start working on all that funeral stuff, so it’s, you know, ready in case.” Zach stated this plan as if it was inevitable, which tore at Isabelle more than he understood or intended. Technically, Isabelle knew it was inevitable. But if Harriet held the key to learning more about their mother, Isabelle didn’t want to cut short even a minute of her life.
Isabelle didn’t mind having their aunt in the hospital so long as she had access to the younger version in her private world, the one with the stories and the answers to Isabelle’s questions, hopes and dreams.
“It makes sense to have you write the eulogy,” Zach casually said as if he was suggesting she pick up oranges for brunch.
“Why me? Why not you? You’re her favorite.” Isabelle was resentful that he assumed she would take care of all the details without even asking what she wanted to do. Isabelle longed to feel cared for as she once had by Masingho. First, she had to be the responsible parent who saw to it that the bills were paid and the appliances were maintained at home, and now she had to take responsibility for her aunt too. Why can’t anyone step up and help shoulder the load for me? “Why do I have to write her eulogy?” Isabelle’s tone with Zach was sharper than she intended.
Isabelle hadn’t thought of Masingho in years, until his name came up with Harriet. Why is he suddenly permeating my thoughts?
“I just assumed you would.” Zach said.
Ugg. Why do I have to do everything?
Isabelle wished it was easier to be happy, that there was a pill she could take or a patch perhaps that would make her feel cheerful and carefree again – or at least something to numb the constant disappointment that had become her life. She disliked herself being so petulant. It didn’t match the image she held of herself, but it was this unsavory side that increasingly came out, more often than not these days.
What a relief it was for her to have Grace, the one person who didn’t make her feel angry and impatient. Grace represented the person Isabelle wanted to be, the person she worked to be, even if that brighter side of her was buried. Grace was joyful, nonchalant, and a natural believer in all things magical. Isabelle was like that as a child too – before the accident.
She didn’t like dividing her memories like that, down a line in the sand before the accident and after, but it was her reality. It was the defining moment of her life that whether she liked it or not made everything change from happy and promising to unacceptable and boarder-line surly. That was with the exception of the early days with Arnie. He brought back those feelings of joy and a genuine sense of wonder for the first few years of their relationship, when he worked so hard to win her over – and to which, after some initial resistance, she enjoyed every moment of giving in.
“Look, I’m not trying to go all master of the obvious on you, but sometimes you do sort of have the disposition of a wet cat on a cloudy day. Don’t get mad,” Zach said.
“How is that master of the obvious? Is that supposed to inspire me to do what you want?”
“Life is hard but it’s more fun to be around happy people.” Isabelle so badly wanted to turn to him and say it – now that’s master of the obvious – but she didn’t. She didn’t have to. It was written on her face. When Zach looked over at her, with what he called her angry-bird smirk on her face, he started laughing. Hysterically. And oddly enough, then so did she. Stupid brother. She hated that she knew he was right.
Isabelle stood up and walked over to the door, looking for Grace. When she peeked her head around the corner, she saw the child hugging Arnie at the elevator. Isabelle’s heart sank. She knew Grace wanted their little family together, but Arnie too had changed. Instead of growing together they had each changed in ways that intensified their differences. He was not the man she married, and she felt increasingly less like herself. Harriet’s constant barrage of corrections, intended to help her niece, had long ago penetrated Isabelle’s ridiculously thin skin to the point that today even she couldn’t differentiate between what inside of her was worth saving or changing anymore. Losing Arnie felt like the final stage of losing everything she once loved about herself.
She paused at the doorway before turning back to Zach and agreeing to start thinking about writing Harriet’s eulogy. How was she supposed to write something meaningful and supportive of the woman she deeply loved but who had spent decades disparaging everything she had ever done, said or thought? It wasn’t something she could think about now. It would have to wait for another day.
Zach stood up and walked over to his sister to give her a half hug, arm around her shoulder. “I’m going to check on Harriet,” he said. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Okay,” Isabelle said as she picked up her own coat, purse, bag and Grace’s purse, and lumbered down the hall toward Arnie and Grace, arriving just as the elevator door closed with Arnie inside. At the elevator she handed Grace her little girl’s purse.
A part of her wanted to run back and tell her aunt to hold on – that she needed more time. But Grace was getting squirmy and Isabelle knew she probably needed to get home and start on homework.
When the elevator doors opened on the main level, a nurse Isabelle didn’t recognize looked at her directly, smiled and exclaimed with excitement, “It’s you. I know you.”
Who is this? Should I know this person? Isabelle smiled and blurted out, “I should know your name, but I don’t.” It was the first honest admission of weakness Isabelle had made in a long time.
“Sally Jo. You helped my daughter pick out our kitten at the humane society,” the nurse said.
It had been months since Isabelle had taken Grace to volunteer at the local animal shelter. It was something she loved but hadn’t made time for in her hectic schedule.
“She’s getting so big,” Sally Jo said. “Her name is Shadow. Let me show you a picture of her,” the nurse said as she grabbed her phone out of her scrubs pocket without hesitation. Isabelle’s guard came down as she waited with anticipation to see the stranger’s cat. Why don’t I remember this lady? Isabelle searched her own mind for some reference.
Isabelle looked at the cute black cat in the photo and glanced down as Sally Jo moved the phone so that Grace could also see the pictures of her cat. For a moment Isabelle felt like she remembered this black kitten with white paws.
“Shadow has been a godsend. She follows Janie everywhere. Thank you,” Sally Jo’s kind eyes were sincere. Suddenly, Isabelle remembered those eyes, and her little girl with curly black hair. Yes, of course, I remember. Isabelle smiled, genuinely pleased with herself for remembering the lady and her daughter. Then she intentionally stopped smiling.
“You lost your mom,” Isabelle recalled. “She took care of Janie while you worked and you were looking for a new family member so your daughter wouldn’t be so sad about losing her grandma.” Isabelle wanted to jump up and down. Lately, she had been forgetting everything, living in a mental slump. But Sally Jo helped her snap out of it. Make this about her, Isabelle. “How are you doing?” Isabelle asked.
“It’s hard,” Sally Jo’s eyes filled with tears. Isabelle nodded. She understood. Suddenly, Sally Jo looked like she remembered she needed to be somewhere else. “I need to get back to the floor. But thank you. Thank you for helping us. Shadow has a great forever home, and you brought joy back to our lives,” Sally Jo said as she stepped into the elevator. I did something good that actually made a difference to someone. Isabelle exhaled. She was at the same time stunned and excited by the brief but powerful interaction.
When the door closed, Grace took her mom’s hand. “When are we going to volunteer at the animal shelter again?”
“Soon. We need to make time to do that,” Isabelle said.
Isabelle was hanging up the phone from a call with a client, when one of her co-workers, Tina, dropped by to compliment her on her hair. Not being someone who fraternized much with the women in her office, this gesture caught her off guard. “Thank you,” Isabelle said, almost dismissively, immediately looking back at her computer monitor.
“Oh, uh, do you have a brother?” Tina asked, keeping the conversation going past what Isabelle would have preferred.
“Yes,” Isabelle said smiling. You can go away now.
“I met him. Arnie, right? He goes to my gym,” Tina said. Now she had Isabelle’s attention.
“Arnie is my husband,” Isabelle said, not offering information about their estrangement.
“Your husband? Maybe there’s another Arnie,” Tina said, making a weird face. “He kissed me after we had drinks last week. I’m sure it’s someone else with the same name,” she suggested, followed by a duplicitous grin.
Don’t take the bait. “What do you mean he kissed you?” Isabelle asked, knowing it wasn’t her business, and wishing she hadn’t asked. But the words were already out.
“Well, we ended up on side-by-side cardio machines and just started talking – you know how that is. Next thing I knew he had my number and wanted to go out afterward. So we did – and one thing led to another. Gosh, I feel bad now,” Tina said.
I had to take the damn bait. It wasn’t enough for Arnie to start dating. He had to pick someone I have to see every day. Jack ass.
Isabelle tried to conceal her emotions.
“Well, we’re separated,” Isabelle reluctantly confessed. It pained her to share a single drop of her personal information at work. It was bad enough that Salvador, her boss, needed to know about Harriet.
“I’m so sorry,” Tina walked into Isabelle’s office from just standing in the doorway, and sat down without being invited. “I feel just terrible.” She didn’t look sorry.
“Well, it’s hard. We have a daughter and eight years of marriage. Ten years together,” Isabelle said. Isabelle glanced up at their family photo on the cherry wood cabinet across the room. She did not want to have this conversation with anyone, let alone a virtual stranger at work.
Tina would not give up. “So do you think you will work things out? I would never want to be a home wrecker. You just say the word and I’ll back off,” Tina said. It was hard for Isabelle to be upset with someone who appeared to be an innocent party in all of this, despite her incongruent body language.
“Look, I really need to finish this report by four-thirty. I appreciate your concern but I don’t really know you and I’m not terribly comfortable with this conversation,” Isabelle confided.
Tina looked taken back, as she slowly placed her palm on her chest and inhaled in an exaggerated manner. “Oh I’m so sorry. If I would have had any idea, I never would have, gosh, I just feel so bad,” she said, starting several thoughts without finishing the last.
“It’s not your problem. It’s fine. Thank you. I’m sorry but I really need to get back to this,” Isabelle said, turning back to her monitor. She was seething at Arnie by this time.
When Tina left her office, Isabelle stood up and walked over to shut the door. While up, she picked up their family picture, opened a drawer, and placed it upside down in the drawer before pushing it closed.
Why would he want to move back in if he was seeing someone new? Wouldn’t he at least mention that we should be seeing other people so I could prepare myself for this?
Isabelle’s phone buzzed. It was a daily affirmation from a site she had subscribed to receiving messages. I receive love and support because I deserve it. Isabelle rolled her eyes, shook her head and moved her finger to delete the message. But just before she deleted it, she reconsidered. She read it again. This time aloud. I receive love and support because I deserve it.
Then she deleted it.
Isabelle took a deep breath and tuned everything out except her report. Her schedule left no room for daydreaming if she expected to get everything done and keep everything going. She needed to focus – now.
That evening, in making dinner, Isabelle dished up the chicken breast and frosted cauliflower, baked with a mustard spread and shredded reduced-fat cheese melted over the top. It was one of Grace’s favorites, and gave Isabelle some sense that she was getting solid nutrients along with whatever junk food Arnie was feeding her. Grace used to love salads and picking out a creative and colorful palate of vegetables, before Arnie left. Now she asked for drive-through food and frozen chicken nuggets.
Isabelle admitted to herself that she had grown increasingly strict in the foods she brought into the house after Grace started eating grown-up food with them. It was intended to set a good example, but like with other things, Isabelle’s meal planning bordered on extreme. She knew Arnie was more than happy to eat frozen pizza rolls heated in the microwave. It was because she loved him that she wanted to change him – for the better – for his own sake. Now it didn’t matter. Her decisions had to be in the best interest of Grace.
“What do you think dad is having for dinner?” Grace asked her mom.
“I don’t know,” Isabelle said, debating how to take this conversation. Should she ignore her daughter’s obvious desire to keep Arnie in the house, at dinner, in their lives, or should she address the elephant in the room? “Grace, Dad will always love you and we will always work together to do what is best for you. But honey, barring a miracle, he’s not moving back in. He might have dinner with us sometimes, but probably more often he will have dinner somewhere else.”
“I believe in miracles,” Grace said, her soulful eyes searching for a positive reaction. “I wish he were here. Do you wish he was here?”
Isabelle’s heart sank. She thought for a moment before responding. “Honey, I know it’s getting dark, but take a look at that tree in the yard over by the mailbox. See how it has one trunk and a little ways up that one trunk gets a little smaller and splits into two big branches with lots of little branches coming off of it?”
After staring intently at the tree, majestic in the moonlight, with just a bit of dusk sunlight hanging on the horizon, the little girl nodded yes. “Both big, strong branches are part of the same tree, but you see the point where they each go in their own direction. It makes the tree pretty and it’s better for each of the branches to have room to develop. Daddy and I need our own room to branch and grow. We’re like that tree, still connected by the trunk, still connected by you – but each with our own space.”
Grace stared across the yard and then turned her attention to the other trees in the yard. Pointing at a tall red maple she said, “That tree has one trunk and lots of tiny branches and it has the most beautiful red leaves. Its branches don’t need space. It makes pretty leaves and only has one trunk.”
Why did she have to be so smart? Isabelle mused silently, ultimately knowing her critical thinking skills were a very good thing, although somewhat inconvenient in this exact moment.
“Yes, indeed, so you see, to have a pretty yard, we need all kinds of trees,” Isabelle said. “Trees with branches that split apart and trees where they don’t. One isn’t better or worse. What matters is that all the trees are healthy, watered, fertilized and cared for.”
Grace seemed at the same time both accepting of and disillusioned by her mom’s analogy. It was clear, Grace would be giving this conversation more thought. But in the mean time, she changed the subject, like she had witnessed her parents do hundreds of times when one of them was avoiding a fight, “I have a history quiz tomorrow. Will you help me study for it?”
“Of course I will,” Isabelle agreed. Isabelle knew instinctively that she should have circled back and vetted Grace’s questions. A part of her wanted desperately to do this for the sake of her daughter’s development – and perhaps to correct the role Harriet had played in her own development decades before. But the sacrifice to herself was simply too great and she too quickly seized the opportunity Grace presented to change the subject to the impending history exam.
It was just easier.
After dinner was finished, and the dishes were rinsed and set in the dishwasher, Grace pulled her backpack on wheels out to the dining room table and reached for her textbook, bookmarked to the chapter she needed to know for the quiz.
“I think the Oregon Trail should have been called the Independence Trail,” Grace shared, in what seemed like a completely out-of-context observation.
“What’s that?” Isabelle inquired.
“The Oregon Trail. With Lewis and Clark,” Grace reminded her mom of third grade history.
“Because,” Isabelle paused before adding, “They found their independence on a long, difficult road?” Isabelle questioned.
“Uh, no. Because it started in Independence, Missouri and Oregon didn’t even exist as a state at the time.” Grace seemed perplexed that her mom didn’t readily seem to know this. Grace’s wide eyes were looking for some sort of connection to confirm this wasn’t a completely unfamiliar topic to her mom.
“Well, it was a territory, wasn’t it?” Isabelle asked. I thought it started in St. Louis, at the arch. Isabelle didn’t remember enough to actually add anything to the discussion. This would be a good opportunity to practice my listening skills. “Why don’t you tell me about it?”
“Families walked thousands of miles and rode in covered wagons that were highly primitive. But they wanted to see the Pacific Ocean so they packed everything up and became pioneers.”
“Highly primitive. Well, that sounds like a fun adventure,” Isabelle prompted.
“A lot of them got sick and died. It doesn’t sound that fun,” Grace stated the obvious.
“When you put it like that...” Isabelle intentionally didn’t finish her sentence. She wanted to see how her daughter was processing this lesson.
“But there were explorers who drew maps. I could have been an explorer. Or joined the Pony Express and delivered mail and messages. That might have been fun.”
“You can be anything you set your mind to,” Isabelle said.
“That’s not totally logical, but I appreciate the sentiment,” Grace said.
Isabelle was overcome with how much Grace reminded her of Arnie sometimes. That’s exactly the kind of thing he would say. Isabelle wanted to argue with Grace, to convince her otherwise. Isabelle did not want to support this limiting way of thinking.
“I’m only eight. What if I’m short? Then I couldn’t be a supermodel,” Grace reasoned.
Isabelle had to give her that one. Isabelle shrugged. “I guess you got me there.” Was it so wrong of her to want her daughter to believe that anything she dreamed of was possible? It was better than her imagining that she had to fit into someone else’s vision or stereotype of who she might grow up to be.
Isabelle didn’t want to rush her daughter through her homework. And at the same time, Isabelle hoped that if Grace went to bed, Harriet might be more inclined to visit. And she very much wanted to connect with her. Isabelle was becoming increasingly excited about her developing relationship with this alternate version of her aunt. It began to preoccupy her thoughts even when she knew it was important to stay in the moment. If there was anything she was recognizing from her time with Harriet, it was how short life was when you want to hang onto it. And as much as she wanted answers from her past, answers about her own mom, those answers wouldn’t mean anything if the search for them cost her a single moment in the present with her own daughter, who in every way had become her world.
And so despite her hope to meet up with her past, she stayed in the moment with her daughter, engaged first in her lessons, and then in helping her get ready for bed. As the two generations sat on the side of the pink ruffled bed, Grace surprised her mom with some unusual questions, “Are you thinking about Yia Yia? Do you miss her?” That’s exactly who Isabelle was thinking about, although in a much different way than she believed Grace could have imagined.
Isabelle stroked her daughter’s hair. “Yes, honey, I miss her. I was thinking about her. You are such a smart little girl,” Isabelle hugged the eight-year-old. And when she did, the most amazing thing happened. Isabelle felt as if someone was hugging her, only not as the mom. Isabelle felt like her eight-year-old self was somehow being hugged. And for the first time since she was Grace’s age, she felt a deep comfort she had not experienced since her own parents died. She unexpectedly felt utterly relaxed, in a way her adolescent and adult selves never had. It took her daughter holding her on the side of the bed that night to reach the sad and closed off part of her heart that had been beating ever so shallow inside her body for more than three decades.
Isabelle inhaled deeply as if smelling one of the roses from her mother’s garden, and exhaled like she was blowing out the candles on the last birthday cake her mom had ever baked. It was an exercise a therapist had suggested years ago, but that resonated with Isabelle. Acknowledging the intense calm the breathing exercises brought about, she repeated the pattern a few more times. Suddenly, in the arms of her daughter, Isabelle felt completely safe – safer than she ever had with Harriet and Frank, Zach or even Arnie. Safer even than with Masingho.
For the first time in Isabelle’s entire life, she actually felt whole.
When her little girl suggested a prayer for Yia Yia, Isabelle went along with her request knowing it was probably a habit her dad had started. There was a time Isabelle prayed quite a lot, but somehow in the hustle and disappointment of life, it was as if she didn’t know what to say anymore and she wasn’t even completely sure anymore her prayers were heard. The two kneeled, and Isabelle listened to the faith of a child pour out to God, or whoever was listening.
“Dear God, please help me get an A on my history quiz tomorrow. And be with mommy as she is scared that Yia Yia is going to die. Please don’t let her die until she is over a hundred, or something very very old. Please help mommy not to be so sad because if mommy is sad, we will never get the puppy I want. A puppy would be fun and I would feed her. Please help daddy come home.”
Grace continued without noticing. “Bless us and keep us safe while we sleep. Amen.”
Isabelle remained kneeling for a bit, thinking. Now she knew what was on her daughter’s mind. She had to admire her daughter’s inclination toward the power of positive thinking.
“Will you snuggle with me?” Grace asked her mom, after she was all tucked in.
“Of course.” She slid into the left side of the bed. Isabelle cradled the child against her, and soon Grace was fast asleep. Isabelle could have gotten up. She even thought about it for a moment. But she knew she was exactly where she needed to be, and so she stayed until she got up and changed for bed herself.