Fifteen

Photo courtesy of Grammar Ghoul Press

The cake sat on the table, candles burning to the nubs. The festive, edible confetti covering the top of the cake suggested hope, but the yelling from the other room was not promising.

A door slammed in the distance, rattling the old house, wavy glass windows shuddering at the disturbance.

Grace returned, tears streaming down her face. The house seemed to fold around her as darkness fell outside. The streamers and balloons lining the small dining room danced slowly overhead in the drafts from the windows. Some of the candles had burned out. She blew out the others, leaving the cake in the middle of the cheap, plastic tablecloth.

She sat in the semi-darkness. If someone had told her things would be like this, she might have made a different choice. She shuddered and retracted the last thought superstitiously. They were just going through tough times, she told herself. Things would get better.

She surveyed the room. Behind the cheery balloons and crepe paper streamers, the walls were covered with school pictures and awards. In the secondhand china cabinet, a baby picture stood proudly between tiny, white, patent leather shoes and a threadbare stuffed animal.

Grace thought back to the night, a lifetime ago, when she had told her then boyfriend of two years that she was pregnant. He had scoffed, then had gotten angry, then had insisted on an abortion. He was a lesser star on the football team, the son of a prominent town doctor. She was the daughter of a pastor. What would people say? There had been yelling and harsh words, and she had stormed off.

Abortion. The quick fix. Her parents would disown her. Frightened and alone, she sat on the park bench, knowing this decision was up to her. After Luke’s reaction, she couldn’t count on him for anything. How could she have been so trusting? How could she have been so stupid? She was barely seventeen.

A small spark awaited her decision, its life hanging in the balance. The realization gradually overtook her. She would have this baby, and she would work as hard as she could to give it the best life possible.

Three months before her eighteenth birthday, Grace gave birth to a baby girl. She named her Athena, after the goddess of wisdom – and warfare, she had found out later. Teenage Athena was now demonstrating her warlike aptitude. Perhaps wisdom was coming.

Athena had never been a calm child. As a fetus, she had pummeled her young mother from the womb. Grace sometimes blamed herself, thinking that wavering over Athena’s life had influenced her temperament. Once she was born, Athena had greeted Grace’s hopeful face with a wail that lasted for the next three months. She fussed at nighttime, never wanting to sleep. To calm her, Grace walked her up and down the road – a new road, in a new city, where no one judged a pastor’s daughter.

Yet Grace remembered the good times. Athena’s birth, though complicated and unexpected, had ushered her into the club of parenthood. She had looked down on her little, wailing daughter with her red, squeezed-up face and her balled up fists and fallen totally and completely in love. Those tiny toes, that shock of hair, the gasping breath between wails were all proof of a miracle. In an instant, the spark had flared into a flame. Where before no Athena had existed, a tiny, blustery, little presence now proclaimed itself to the world.

Standing, Grace smiled and wiped her tears. How could she ever second guess her choice? Today she would celebrate, even if she had to celebrate alone. Through the difficult past fifteen years, the depth and warmth that came from loving her child had filled every crack and crevice in her heart.

As she cut into the small, cheerful cake, the door down the hall creaked open. The streamers danced in the gust of air.

“Mom?” a hoarse voice called, hesitantly.

“I’m in here,” Grace called back, slicing through the frosting and into the rich chocolate center.

Athena stopped in the doorway, arms crossed. They looked at one another with red, puffy eyes, then both burst into laughter.

“Is that my piece?” Athena asked, enfolding her mom in an awkward, distant-yet-desperate, teenage hug.

“You bet it is,” said Grace, lighting a candle nub and placing it on top. “Now make a wish!”

But really, what more was there to wish for?

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The Panic Of Not Knowing

Twenty-four hours can change your life, Dana thought as she sat, slumped, her face in her hands. Just yesterday Olivia was whirling around the patio in her rainbow tutu to an audience of one, Dana, who sat sipping her coffee among the dahlias. Energetically, Olivia became one with her dance. In true five-year-old fashion, she embraced life with the bear-hug of love.

Dana now looked at her daughter in the hospital bed, hooked up to machines. Olivia’s eyes were closed, her heartbeat thrumming like a hummingbird’s.

“Mama, can we have ice cream today?” she had said, after curtsying and climbing up onto Dana’s lap, stealing a sip of her latte.

Dana had appointments and meetings all day, so ice cream would have to wait. A momentarily disappointed Olivia climbed down, then, forgetting the ice cream, leaped and twirled, arms extended, into the house to get ready for school. Dana watched her go, finishing her coffee. She loved these mornings. Bill was away on another business trip, and she had her daughter all to herself. Tomorrow they would get ice cream.

Beep…beep…beep…

The sound of monitors brought thoughts back to the present and her daughter now lying here, motionless.

She grasped one of Olivia’s little hands. A tear trickled down her face as she made silent bargains with the universe. She tried a direct connection to God, though she hadn’t had a conversation with Him in years. Oh, baby, she thought, just get well. Please come back to me.

Bill was flying back early.

When the school had called her to tell her Olivia had been feeling dizzy, Dana canceled her afternoon meeting to pick her up. When she got there, Olivia was reeling, unable to stand upright. Something was not right. She scooped her up in her arms and raced her to urgent care, her soothing banter belying her gut-wrenching anxiety. The wait had been short. Olivia’s condition spurring the medical staff into action. Once admitted, things had quickly spiraled out of Dana’s control. The next thing she knew, she was sitting beside her unconscious daughter’s bed, miles from home at the children’s hospital.

Tears flowed freely now. Worry vice-gripped her heart, unrelenting. The doctors couldn’t give her a diagnosis. It could be a virus causing an immune response; though rare, they had seen it before. Or it could be something much worse. They would need more tests. The nurses had poked and prodded, taking blood samples, checking vitals. She needed Bill. She longed for his strong presence, for his arms to enfold her, for him to make everything okay.

Day turned to night. A nurse entered silently and jotted notes on a chart. Olivia had missed her bedtime story. Dana herself would have been reading in bed until the familiar lead weight of sleep forced her eyes closed. Bill’s flight would be here soon. Dana rested her head on Olivia’s bed, spent.

The sun was high in the window when Dana was roused by a hand on her back. Bill. She saw the fear in his eyes. She embraced him and lost herself in his arms, sobbing. For the next few days, they tag-teamed at the hospital. Though Dana didn’t want to leave Olivia’s side, sleep deprivation overtook her and forced her to seek the quiet darkness of a hotel bed, where she slept fitfully, cell phone by her side. The doctors still couldn’t tell them anything. Olivia was breathing on her own, but barely. When they discussed life support, Dana broke out in a cold sweat.  Nobody had warned her about the sheer terror that could overtake her as a parent.

Once again, she took up her post at Olivia’s bedside. She held one small hand and started quietly singing a song that she used to sing to Olivia as a baby, comforting verses about walking through a storm and not being alone. She sang softly. Time slowed down. As he left, Bill urged her to eat. She nodded, knowing she wouldn’t. She sang, and a peace came over her. Hospital sounds faded into the background.

They were alone in the room when she thought she felt Olivia’s hand move slightly. Her voice caught, then found itself again as she pushed the call button. Soon, little eyelids fluttered slowly, then opened. She paused.

“Mommy?”

Dana’s heart caught in her throat. There was no sweeter sound on earth.

“Hey, baby,” she replied softly, stroking Olivia’s face. Gratitude washed over her. “Ready for that ice cream?”

Wedding Plans

“Amber…? Amber!”

Amber tried to hide the look on her face. She turned to face her sister.

“What are you staring at?” Lynne asked, her face all screwed up in that motherly grimace of an older sister.

“Oh, nothing. I was just thinking,” Amber replied, taking a sip of wine.

“Well, I was asking your opinion about the dresses,” Lynne said, pouring herself another glass. “What do you think of coral chiffon?”

Amber tried not to choke on her wine.

“Coral? Not really my color,” she said, pointing to her red hair.

“Well, the day is not about you, is it?” Lynne reminded her. The other bridesmaids stifled tipsy giggles. “We need to talk about this. We need to come to a decision. The girls like this coral dress. What do you think?”

Amber rolled her eyes. This was interminable. She would give anything to be anywhere else right now, like a rodeo, or under a bridge. In the college of life she had inadvertently enrolled in Weddings 101. Instructor? Bridezilla.

“Why can’t we have a normal color, like blue or green?” she offered. These would have set her hair off, but then Lynne, with her stringy blonde hair, wouldn’t like that at all.

“No, I think we’ll go with the coral,” Lynne decided, and raised her glass. The bridesmaid troupe raised their glasses as well. Everyone stared at Amber.

“Fine,” she said, beaten. She raised her glass, then downed the whole thing. What she wouldn’t give for a shot of tequila!

The nameless bridesmaid clones started chatting among themselves like a gaggle of geese. Straightened, highlighted hair bobbing and flowing. Privileged girl tans. She watched her sister chat happily with them, blue eyes sparkling as she laughed about shared times. She turned away again. Her hand went subconsciously to her red curls, pulling and twirling one as she thought.

“Amber…? Amber,” Lynne was staring at her again with her penetrating gaze. How long had she been daydreaming? The clones had left, probably to go to the bathroom together.

“I’m fine,” Amber said, sighing.

“Thanks for agreeing to be in the wedding,” Lynne said. “I know how difficult it must be for you. It means a lot to me.”

“I guess I can expect Dad to be there, right?”

“Of course.”

A pained look came over Amber’s face.

Lynne looked away. Amber felt bile rising up in her throat at the absurd unfairness of it all.

“How are things at home?” she asked, twirling her curl again.

“Oh, you know. Mom is busy with her volunteering, and Dad is working all the time, as usual. You should call them. They would love to hear from you.” Lynne said. “They are planning a trip to Europe after the wedding,” she added.

Ugh! She felt the tears coming again. Stupid tears. Again. Always with the tears. She steeled herself, biting her cheek and blinking fast, hoping that would make them go away. She couldn’t believe he was footing the bill for this circus of a wedding.

“Amber. Think about this. Dad is a selfish jerk, but you can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Mom has spent endless nights crying because you don’t call,” Lynne said.

She turned on Lynne, eyes narrowed. “You don’t understand,” she said. “Everything you’ve asked for, you’ve been given. You just bat those eyelashes and the man caves. I’ve never really asked for anything until I asked for help with paying for the university, and he wanted my five year plan… in writing. Look at this place,” she continued, waving her hand around. “What does a wedding at a winery cost, anyway?”

Lynne looked away. There was silence.

“Amber,” Lynne said quietly, earnestly, turning back toward her sister, “I can’t help what Dad does. I want you to be a part of my wedding. You’re my sister, and I love you. I wish you could put this aside and move on.”

Lynne had been telling her for years to get over it. She knew she couldn’t. The pain seared into her heart. She also knew Lynne was right. It was not her fault, although she had played into it plenty of times. But who’s to say Amber wouldn’t have done the same thing in her position.

The tipsy clones were on their way back.

“Would it help if the dresses were blue?” Lynne offered.

“Nah, coral is just fine,” Amber said, smiling wryly. “Open bar, right?”

Lynne just laughed and hugged her sister.

“You bet.”

Photo courtesy of Grammar Ghoul Press