Masks of Morality

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Chapter 3

Between driving Tyler to and from school, working volunteer at the library and computer labs, coaching homework, helping with several community events, and supporting the environmental organization, Caryssa’s week flew by. It was time to meet with the elementary playgroup again.

It was overcast and cool—a more seasonal day than usual for winter in the San Francisco Bay. Remembering Brenda’s comment about the picnic planned with Anna Beauvais, Caryssa brought goodies to share, including grapes, crackers, cheese, and California rolls. She placed it all into her gourmet picnic backpack.

The same group met; Brenda with the twins, Stan with his boys, Caryssa with Tyler, and Laura with her son Darren. They were there for half an hour and still no Anna. Had the mystery mom blown them off? They decided to lay a few blankets out on the grass, open chairs, and start the picnic.

“Oh, here she comes!” exclaimed Brenda. Caryssa followed Brenda’s eyes to the woman descending the hill towards them. She was holding a little girl’s hand and carrying a food basket adorned with ivy vines.

There was only one word Caryssa could think of to describe Anna. Stunning. More like drop dead, knock out gorgeous. She was tall, with a willowy figure. Light chestnut hair with blond highlights fell to her shoulders. Huge, wide-set almond eyes and creamy ivory unlined skin.

“Veillex excuser mon retard---sorry I’m late! I ran into some traffic on the bridge.” Anna’s slightly crooked smile and French accent added to her charm. The little girl, dressed like a boy, clung shyly to her arm.

Brenda introduced Anna to the group.

“And what is this beautiful little girl’s name?” asked Caryssa.

“This is… he’s a little boy. Maybe your daddy should get those curls cut off soon!” responded Anna, as she playfully twisted Jared’s long blond hair.

Anna sat on the edge of a blanket and began taking things out of her basket to add to the picnic spread. She had china, glasses, and a bottle of fine red wine, roasted chicken coated with spices, patè, collard greens, tomatoes and okra with garlic bread.

“Wow, the girl from Paris sure knows how to throw a picnic!” Brenda marveled.

“Ah merde!” Anna rummaged through her basket. “I forgot a corkscrew…and I am sure we have something to toast to! Like our new friendship. There’s always something in life worth toasting.”

“I happen to have a corkscrew!” chimed in Caryssa. She was happy she had decided to tote her heavy picnic backpack replete with plates, wine glasses and utensils.

“Best not make it a habit sipping wine during playdates,” laughed Brenda. But today was special. It was a day to celebrate life. The soothing breezes of an early spring carried a message of hope and delight. Flowers were blooming, everywhere the smell of roses, lavender and pink jasmine. Everywhere the sounds of the children’s laughter. The moment called out for celebration.

Tyler and two of the other boys came wandering over to the picnic blanket to grab something to eat and check out the new kid. Jared, no longer clinging to Anna’s arm, wandered off with them to the sandbox to play with some trucks. It seemed as though he had known the other boys forever, already best friends.

“So you have…did we hear correctly that you have two daughters?” Stan asked Anna.

An awkward silence fell over the group. Brenda and Anna exchanged quick glances. Moments passed before anyone spoke. Caryssa saw something flash in Anna’s gorgeous almond eyes. Pain. Seeing that pain, she wanted to clutch Tyler to her bosom and never ever let him go.

Anna glanced at Stan and then looked at the wine glass in her hand. “No…Well. Yes. But…no. Not now. They are both…gone.”

And then staring off into the distance, her eyes pooling with quiet tears, she told the story of how she had lost both her daughters. One at twelve and one at sixteen.

“It was a cool, foggy, rainy winter afternoon. I had been working from my home studio in Sausalito. My youngest daughter Bianca had decided against my wishes to take her new skateboard out for a spin on our narrow, winding, sidewalk-less street.”

Her voice choked with a sob. Brenda took her hand. “My rule for the skateboard was for Bianca to carry it across the street to the park. Especially in inclement weather, and never ride on our street. That day it was raining. Hard. Bianca…Bianca was known as a daredevil on her skateboard, prone to taking big risks.”

Caryssa sipped her wine, recognizing her hand was shaking violently.

Anna continued, tears dropping onto her plate of hors d’oeuvres. “Bianca was acting willfully defiant, after having been told it was not a good night for a sleepover. She needed to burn off some resentment. The best way to do that was to go out skateboarding. I was absorbed in my work, and didn’t hear the front door slam.”

Caryssa blamed herself for her cat getting hit by a car. Could she even imagine it being her child?

“The call came twenty minutes later. A neighbor had seen a car come around the corner and hit Bianca. The skateboard flew off into the street. She saw the car take off.”

It was so quiet around the blanket, the carefree sounds of the children’s laughter in the background rose chillingly around them.

“Bianca had been flung five feet from the curb. They found her deep in a cluster of juniper off the side of the road. She had died on impact.” Anna paused, this time it was her hand visibly shaken while sipping her wine.

“The tragedy sent my family into a whirlwind of emotions—shock, grief, blame, guilt, anger. My first-born daughter, Cassidy, she….she…” another choked sob. “She was like a mother hen to her little sister and took it the worst. She went from grief to depression. Her grades fell. She withdrew. She began staying out all night. Not telling me where she was going or who she was with. We were devastated by the loss of Bianca and just barely holding it together.”

Caryssa winced. God, life is fragile. She glanced over at Tyler, skipping happily along the park path, blowing bubbles through a wand.

“Just before her sixteenth birthday, Cassidy announced to us that she was pregnant. Scared and heartbroken for her, we supported her all the way. She carried the child for thirty-two weeks, delivering a healthy but premature boy. She named him Jared.” This time, Anna glanced lovingly over at her grandson.

The mom’s collectively spurred Anna to continue, sensing she still needed to talk. Caryssa glanced around at the sheer beauty of the park, breathing in the scent of flowers.

“Her depression worsened. Now not only was she grieving her little sister, she was postpartum. Her hormones were crazy. She fell into despair. She would lie around the house. She spent a lot of time crying. She barely noticed Jared. She wouldn’t eat. She couldn’t sleep. She…she…..”

Anna stopped talking and forced a smile. “Oh, my. Listen to me go on! We have barely touched our picnic!” She poured a second glass of wine for everyone... The silence that had fallen over the group remained, and the feeling of celebration was gone. Caryssa looked over at the kids and was glad to see that Tyler had successfully pulled Jared into their little social circle at the batting T, and was now letting Jared have a try at a hit.

Watching the kids play, Caryssa found she had tears wetting her cheeks for this woman she didn’t know and for the daughters who had gone so soon. She regretted how she and the others had so quickly misjudged Anna, presuming that because she had a successful business she might be neglecting her kids.

How must the loss of her daughters have affected Anna’s entire life?

These thoughts came to her in the cool, silent moments between the sadness and the sipping of superb wine. Between bites of the amazingly delicious food. Which seemed so at odds with Anna’s story. Yet there was Anna, grieving unimaginable losses, and also willing to celebrate new friends and a beautiful day.

The mood of celebration broken, the parents began to clean up after the picnic. Anna and Jared were the first to leave. “Sorry to leave so soon, but we’ve got to get across that bloody bridge before traffic hits.” Anna snatched up her empty basket. “Come on, Jared honey!”

Jared came running, out of breath and flushed from his rousing game of T-ball with his new friends. Hand in hand, they walked off.

Gathering her things, Caryssa tried to fill in the blanks where Anna had been too emotional to elaborate. As they all herded the kids to their cars, she asked Brenda “So…do you know what happened to Anna’s oldest daughter?”

“Yes, I knew the entire sad story…but didn’t want to be the one to tell you guys. I figured that if Anna wanted to talk about it, she would. Cassidy committed suicide when Jared was two months old. She had OD’d on some pills her doctor prescribed.”

“Oh my God, how can one woman sustain such losses and still be so sane?” Caryssa had suspected suicide but hadn’t wanted to say it.

On the drive home, Caryssa remembered Anna’s obvious joy at seeing the kids play, how she mentioned their sunshine souls. A mother, deprived of her daughters, now the grandmother of a child deprived of a mother.

“God bless those little souls,” she said out loud to nobody in particular.

Tyler asked from his car seat in the back. “Who are you talking to, Mommy?”

“Oh…no one, honey. Myself, I guess. Or maybe I’m talking to my Guardian Angel. I’m not sure.” What she was sure of was the finality of those girls lives made her think about God and souls.

“Mommy, do you know the difference between a person and an angel?” Tyler asked, excited by this new turn in the conversation. “I do!!! An angel is mostly on the inside, and a person is mostly on the outside!”

“What…what do you mean by that, love?”

“Well, the angels, like they work with God, they are the good guys. They like, can see you in the middle like God does. They can love you in the middle like God does. But like people, they can only you know, like see you on the outside. And the devil, well, they are the bad guys. They can hurt you on the outside. But they can’t get you on the inside…in the middle…unless you let them in.”

“That’s insightful, little man. Who told you?”

“Oh, nobody told me. Nobody had to tell me. I already knew.”

Caryssa’s eyes filled with tears. For a moment she was so moved she couldn’t speak. The little ones really do know stuff about Divinity that we adults have forgotten. And here was evidence of it, in her little boy. She finally found her voice. “Tyler, Mommy and Daddy love you all the way to your heart and soul like God does.”

But by that time Tyler was already off on a different topic, amusing himself with his toy truck.

Caryssa sometimes felt as if an angel tapped her on the head when she said or did something not entirely pleasing to God. It happened then, after her conversation with her beautiful little boy. It was as if the angel were saying “Yes, there is no deeper love on earth than the love of a parent for a child. Yet nobody on Earth has a deeper love than the Lord your God.”

But more and more, Caryssa realized, she did not believe that. Believe in God? Yes. But believe in a love deeper than the love she has for Tyler? No. Never.

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