Six Weeks Later
“Lord, I know you say that you’ll never give us more than we can handle, but right now, it sure seems that way. Them girls need more than just a granny. And Lord, that boy of mine has more wounds on his soul, from that woman, than the SEALs ever put on his body.” Esther Monroe gently rubbed the glass on the silver picture frame, outlining the faces beneath.
Her shoulders sagged under the weight of worry, as the frame fell onto the bed next to her. Tears streamed down her weathered cheeks as she bowed her head in prayer. “Now Jeb too. I know some people would say forty-three years is too long with one man, but Lord, I ain’t ready to give him to you yet. I just don’t know what to do no more. Daniel and the girls need me here, but my husband needs me home. With the cancer back, I just don’t know what I’m going to do.”
For several long moments, she remained bent in silent prayer. She sighed heavily as she finally lifted her grey head and wiped the wetness from her face. Esther opened her grey-blue eyes. She stared across the room at her two sleeping grand-daughters. At barely a year old, Britney and Ashley would never even remember the woman that gave birth to them, or the pain she caused. They were probably the lucky ones.
She stood slowly, uncertain, but determined nonetheless, as she crossed the room to the corner where the computer screen glowed softly on the nightstand. Squaring her shoulders, she reached out and pushed a single button. “It’s done now, Lord. For good or for bad, it’s all in your hands,” she pronounced with the finality of amen as she turned back to the bed. The open suitcase lay open with clothes surrounding it. She began to fold and place them inside one by one.
Jill placed the cup of steaming black coffee on the table and opened the battered laptop. Her fingers hesitated before pressing the power button. She listened to the soft whir of the fan as she brought the cup slowly to her lips. At her age, she felt an utter fool to be expectantly awaiting an email from a man half a world away. Yet, over the past six weeks, she had felt a growing excitement about Daniel Monroe and his daughters.
She looked out the kitchen window, another rainy day in London. The weather would be one thing that she would not miss about her adopted home - if this arrangement with Daniel worked out. Opening the internet browser, she checked her email. There was still no word from her boys, and that worried her, even though she knew it should not. She smiled, and her fingers trembled as they pressed the key that would open the latest email from Daniel.
My mother is packing this evening. The news from the doctors back home isn’t good. My dad’s cancer that we thought was in remission has spread. She wouldn’t say it, but I don’t think there is much they can do this time.
I know this may seem sudden, but it isn’t like we haven’t talked about it — the whole arranged marriage thing. Besides, as Mama points out, the girls need more than a grandmother, and I’m not too damned proud to admit I need some help here. Four daughters to care for, coping with Rachel’s death. Hell, give me an IED in Afghanistan any day.
I know I’m rambling, but it’s late. Anyway, I’ve purchased a plane ticket for you. Your flight leaves Heathrow day after tomorrow at 11.15 and arrives in Washington Dulles at 14.20. My mother’s plane back to Omaha leaves an hour earlier, so I’ll pick you up after she takes off.
I guess I’ll be seeing you shortly, or I hope so.
Jill ran her hand through her shoulder-length dirty blonde hair. Tomorrow. There was a plane ticket for her back to the states tomorrow. After twenty-six years in a country that had never felt like home, despite her husband and sons, she would be going home.
If the idea of traveling three thousand miles to marry a man that she had never met gave her pause, she did not show it. Powering down the computer, she placed her cup in the sink. Little more than twenty-four hours from now, she would be at Heathrow and on the way to a new life.
Daniel leaned into the back of the Explorer. It was an older model, but he made sure that it was well maintained. Re-adjusting the last of the luggage in the storage compartment, he slammed the window shut and walked around to the driver’s side door. He crammed his six-foot-four-inch frame behind the wheel and turned to face his mother. “Simone said that she would call you tonight to let you know how things went. I got the feeling she wasn’t talking about your flight, either.”
Esther fidgeted in the front seat, avoiding her son’s bright blue eyes. “She might be a tad unusual, but that girl has a heart of gold.”
He shook his dark head and chuckled, “Heart of gold is one way to put it, but whatever you call her craziness, you two have certainly become thicker than thieves these past few months, that’s for sure. All those computer classes she gave you better pay off when you get home. I expect an email every day with updates on Dad.”
Her face paled at the mention of computer lessons. She patted the laptop that sat on the seat next to her. “You have my word, Daniel.”
Daniel studied his mother. She was unusually quiet. He knew that she was worried about his father’s cancer, but it felt like there was something else she was not telling him. He hesitated to put the feeling to words, “Mama, how bad is it really?”
Her grey head dropped to stare at her hands neatly folded in her lap. His mother fought back the tears, “Bad, Daniel,” was her only response.
He wanted to press for more information, but he could see the pain in her face. He hated it when women cried, especially the ones he cared about. He always wanted to fix it, make everything all better, but except for his young twins, it rarely worked that way. He squared his shoulder and made a strategic retreat. “You’ll be home tonight.”
“I know, but I still worry about you and the girls,” he could hear the trembling in his mother’s voice, felt the truth in her words. Honestly, so was he. Memories of those couple of days after Rachel’s death still haunted him, the chaos that had reigned in his home, before his mother and Simone took over like Admirals commanding the battle.
But he reminded himself that it would be only a few days until he found a nanny. This time, he knew his daughter’s schedule, where everything was, and had a list of the best take-out places in town. For all her meddling, he knew that Simone would step in if he needed her, and in a pinch, he could count on Jess to help out. They would be fine. He tried to reassure himself before attempting to convince his mother of something about which he still had doubts. “I told you already. Simone will help out for a few days, and I have already called a couple of agencies about nannies. We’ll be fine,” he bluffed.
His mother shook her head and gave him that same stare that she used when he messed up as a child, “Daniel, those girls don’t need a nanny. Nannies quit all the time. Those girls need stability, someone that is going to be there no matter what. Someone that’s gonna love them through these bad times and the ones to come.”
Daniel gripped the steering wheel tighter. He knew what was coming. They had been having this same argument for the past couple of weeks. “Mama, they have me. I might not know much about hair and Barbie dolls, but I love my girls.”
His mother reached over and gently squeezed his forearm, “I never said you didn’t, Daniel. But they need a woman. They need a mother.”
There it was. Anger rose inside Daniel as he thought about that Indian summer afternoon, the red and orange leaves falling all about him, as he stood over that bronze box, and stared into the deep hole that his failure as a husband and man had dug. “Yeah, Mama, well, they had one of those and look how that turned out,” he exploded.
The car was silent for a couple of moments. He was not certain if his mother was using the time simply to regroup for another assault, or if she was ready to surrender. He doubted very much that it was the latter. Finally, he could not take the suspense any longer. Looking over to his mother, he saw love and concern written all over her face. He knew that her intense loyalties were torn now, and he wanted nothing more than to reassure her, make this all right. “We’ll do fine,” he smiled.
“Daniel, I know Rachel was your wife, but that woman didn’t have a motherly instinct in her body. God rest her soul,” she said as she made the sign of the cross.
He inhaled deeply and prepared for the next round of the same battle that they seemed locked in. It was grating on his nerves. His mother of all people should understand why he would never marry again. He slammed his palms against the steering wheel as frustration boiled over, “Mama, we’ve been through this before. So, unless you got a wife and mother in one of those bags in the back, this subject is closed.”
“Well, she isn’t exactly in my luggage. You have to pick her up at the airport.”
His jaw dropped open as he stared at the woman, who had given birth to him, like her skin had turned green and antenna sprouted from her forehead.
“May I bring you another drink?” smiled the steward.
Jill’s fingers trembled a bit as she passed the empty wineglass back to him. “I’d better not.”
“Business or pleasure?” the man inquired with the polite aloofness that marked the culture she had lived in for most of her adult life. Politeness that lacked sincerity or any real depth of caring.
Jill furrowed her brow as she considered the question. What was this ‘arrangement’ anyway? “Business, I suppose.”
“Well, best of luck to you then,” he offered, before pushing his cart further down the narrow aisle to the next weary traveler. It only confirmed her assumptions and deepened the sense of loneliness inside her.
Jill turned back to look at the clouds passing by her window as she pondered the man’s question. The bravery or fool-hardiness of the past thirty-six hours melted away from her, as the reality of the situation set in.
For the past few weeks, it had all seemed so completely logical. She wanted to go home. She missed the military life that she had once shared with her husband. And her arms and heart ached with love. Her sons were grown, so she had no one to whom she could give it all.
Daniel’s wife was dead. Widowhood was just one of their common bonds. He had four daughters, just as she had four sons. Except that his daughters desperately needed the love that her sons had outgrown, love that she yearned to give once more.
Arranged marriages were common, she had told herself. Ubah had always extolled the advantages of a relationship built on the solid ground of shared values, goals, and respect. She had spoken often of the happiness that she had found with her arrangement. It was far more stable than a marriage built upon the turbulent tides of passion that ebbed and flowed with time, Ubah had pointed out repeatedly. As proof, she pointed to the lower divorce rates in countries where the practice was still prevalent.
Of course, was it any different than dating sites that boasted of finding the perfect match based upon shared principles and goals? What, too, of the many men that practically bought foreign brides? She had reasoned and justified this decision from many angles over these past weeks.
She pulled the grainy picture printed on cheap computer paper from the pocket on the chair back in front of her. Jill stared at the laughing man and the four beautiful girls surrounding him. She knew so much about each of them from his emails.
Jessica or Jess, as she preferred to be called, was almost thirteen. Her blonde hair was cut short for the sake of the many sports that were her passions. Isobel, called Bel, was six and could play for hours in her room with the dozens of dolls that her sister had long since abandoned. But it was the two youngest Monroe girls that tugged at her heart. Ashley and Britney were barely a year old. They had started to walk since their email correspondence began. Daniel had even sent a video of their first steps that his mother had taken.
Her eyes danced across the figure of the man holding a baby high in each arm. The lower part of his face was covered with layers of chocolate hair from his beard. But she could see, despite the poor resolution of the picture which was probably taken on a mobile phone, that his lips were full. But it was his eyes. She could not look away from them. They hid so much pain. “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”
“What the hell have you done, Mama?” Daniel demanded. His voice was louder and firmer than it had ever been to the woman whom he loved deeply.
“What you should have done yourself, looked for a good woman that will love those babies and take care of them like they ought to be,” she replied with equal anger as she crossed her arms and set herself for this next battle.
“Mama, they call those women nannies, and I am looking for one.” Daniel was not ready to have this conversation with his mother. He needed time to think as he slammed the car into gear and drove off. Silence filled the air.
Daniel knew his mother meant the best. He was one of the lucky ones in this fucked up world. He grew up in a home where his mother and father loved him and one another. They were not afraid to show it either. Until he was almost ten, Daniel awoke each morning to a kiss on his cheek and a song. It was a tradition that he carried on with his daughters, though Jess was beginning to complain, as he once had. He still found himself humming ‘Arise and shine,’ in the darkest of moments. And there had been enough of those these past few years.
Still, there was not a day went by, when he was home, that he did not hug his girls and tell them he loved them, just like his own childhood. That was probably what had gotten them through the past nine months since Rachel’s suicide.
Things were hard; he admitted that. He honestly did not know what he was going to do now that his mother was going home. He knew that Simone and the other wives would help out as much as they could. The closeness of his unit extended beyond the battlefield to the home front. Wives and children were encompassed in the bands of their brotherhood.
But Daniel remembered well those first few days following Rachel’s death before his mother arrived. He had burnt everything, even food he microwaved. Bel’s hair was a mass of blonde tangles because he could not bear the tears if he tried to comb it. The only thing he had successfully managed was changing the babies’ diapers, and at times, he had been tempted to break out the gas masks for that chore. He did not even want to think about what their small, three-bedroom house must have looked like when his mother came through the door. He told himself one more time that he would manage. Until he could find a nanny, that was.
His mother’s pleas broke through his thoughts as they entered the freeway that would take them north towards Northern Virginia, D.C., and the airport. “Daniel, I’m sorry. You have to know I was just thinking of those girls and you.” He could hear the pain as his mother’s voice cracked under the stress of the past couple of weeks.
Daniel saw tears glistening in her eyes. He never was any good at handling a woman’s tears. His daughters’. His wife’s. Or especially his mother’s. “I know, Mama. I know.”
His mother began to wring her hands in her lap as the tears slipped from the corner of her eyes. “And Jill is special. She raised four teenage boys all by herself after her husband was killed in Afghanistan. She works as a chef at a mental health center now that her sons are all grown.” Her eyes pleading with him as she continued, “Daniel, she’s come all the way from London. I know you are mad at me, and I deserve it, but son, your dad and I raised a gentleman. Promise me you won’t leave her waiting at that airport.”
“Jesus, Mama, of course, I won’t leave her at the airport,” he spat with shock. “Did you even have to ask?”
Sighing, she smiled weakly as she continued. “No, Daniel, I guess not. I just feel so responsible for this mess.”
Daniel was tempted to let his mother off the hook. He could see the worry etched in her face. He and the girls. His dad. Everything must have seemed to be closing in on her. It was a familiar feeling. In the end, he asked, “What did you expect me to say or do, Mama?”
Shaking her grey head, his mother stared out the window at the tall trees that ran along the side of the highway. “I don’t know. I guess I just hoped that I could make you see how practical it was. You need someone to manage the house, cook, clean, and look after the girls. They need someone that will invest real time and love in them, not someone who just sees them as a paycheck. And Jill is so alone over there now. Her husband dead. Her sons grown. She just has so much love to give, and I figured our girls could use some of it.”
Daniel hated to admit it, but her words sounded perfectly logical. “Mama, she’s a perfect stranger,” he argued in his defense.
“She doesn’t have to be. Give her a chance, sweetie. That’s all I ask,” his mother pleaded.
He shook his head, “Considering the alternative is to leave a woman stranded at the airport, alone in a foreign country, what choice do I have?”
“It’s not a foreign country. Jill is American.”
“But I thought you said she was from London,” Daniel was confused.
“She is, but she’s American. She moved over there twenty-six years ago when she married a Royal Marine that she met while on leave in Cancun.”
“She was on leave in Cancun?” he asked, even more confused.
“No, silly, he was.”
Daniel gripped the steering wheel tighter. “Alright, we have a couple of hours, at least, with this traffic. How about you brief me on this whole damned thing? But only the basics,” he asserted. He did not want his mother to get any foolish ideas - any more than she already had that was. “I am not making any promises here. I just want enough information, so I can make the lady comfortable until we can get her back to London. Understand me, Mama?”
Esther smiled and nodded, sending another silent prayer towards heaven.