Below is chapter 11 from New Life in Harmony – my current novel (which isn’t quite finished). I’m not sure if I’ll end up putting the whole thing out into the world or not, whether here on the blog or Amazon or elsewhere, but I felt guided to put this part here.
I want to stay numb, but pain and guilt pierce me as I hear the screen door slam shut behind Nora. Although I keep rocking slowly, I close my eyes to try to force back the feelings and return to emptiness.
After several seconds, I hear June follow her sister into the house. She doesn’t let the door slam as Nora did, but I can feel her disappointment in me just the same. Disappointment that I’m not the mother she wants and needs, not the mother she used to have.
I’m disappointed in myself too, and my disappointment and my shame come together to force out words.
“Why am I doing this to my girls?” I open my eyes and look at my brother-in-law. Lester’s presence on the porch has been calming, and I feel as though I can talk to him. I keep my voice low, aware of the open window nearby. I don’t want my words to be heard above the radio inside. “What’s wrong with me?”
Lester continues to move the porch swing in a gentle rhythm. “You’re grieving. And I’d say you’re trying to protect your heart. It’s hurting real bad.”
“But their hearts are hurting too. Nora’s. June’s. And as for Curtis…” I give a slow shake of my head. “I’m not able to help my own husband through his grief.”
“I’m sure Curtis knows you’re doing your best, Marilee.”
“My best isn’t good enough. So many other women have lost sons in this war. And husbands. Fathers of their children.”
“And you think those people are handling it better than you are.” His words come as a statement, not a question.
“It appears that way.”
After some moments of silence, Lester lets out a long breath and says, “Everybody deals with grief in their own way. After Ruby passed on, I kept myself busy all day long. I filled my hours with work, and when I wasn’t working I’d go into town for a church meeting or supper at the diner. Anything I could do to keep from being here by myself with nothing to occupy my time.” He pauses. “I imagine folks would say I was coping back then. That’s what some of ‘em even told me. But truth was, I was just doing everything I could do to keep my mind from thinking about Ruby. Spending time by myself or having hours when I wasn’t working or busy…well, that would lead to me thinking about her. And if I thought of her, I couldn’t ignore how much I missed her.”
I gaze at Lester, not sure of what to say to him. My mind travels back to the time of Ruby’s death, coming so soon after my mother-in-law’s passing. Ruby’s health had always been frail but still her passing caught us by surprise. My heart had hurt for Lester’s loss, and even though Ruby and I hadn’t been very close, I had grieved the woman I had come to care for as my sister in marriage. Now I remember how, at the time, I thought Lester was handling it all so well. I should have realized he’d been hiding his grief more than we knew.
“How did you get through it?” My words are a whisper.
“I’m not rightly sure I know,” he says. “It was day by day, putting one foot in front of the other. Keeping busy. Keeping my mind occupied. Still is like that sometimes, truth be told, even after all these years.” He rubs the side of his chin. “For a time, I tried to hide from my pain with alcohol but that never turned out well for me – seems like I’d just end up missing Ruby even worse. So I gave that up right quick and sought my strength where I’d always found it before, in the Bible and at church. Time with the Lord. I grabbed hold of Jesus as tight as I could and I didn’t let go. I turned to prayer like never before.”
I rock my chair faster and look out over the yard. “Well, I can’t seem to pray anymore. It feels like no one is listening.”
“He’s listening, Marilee.” Even though I’m not looking directly at him anymore, I can sense Lester watching me. “He hasn’t stopped listening. Won’t ever stop.”
I end my rocking and get to my feet. “I should get dinner on the table for y’all.”
“You’re not going to eat?”
“I’m not hungry.” I give him a small smile. “And no, it’s not as if I’m going without food today. I had something this morning after everyone else finished breakfast. Plus I did a bit of nibbling as I cooked.” I pull open the screen door and give him one last look. “Thank you, Lester.”
His eyebrows go up. “What for?”
“Listening. And talking. Now, come on inside in a couple of minutes and fix your plate.”
I try to pull more strength together as I go into the house and head to the kitchen. Once I had made myself finish my breakfast biscuit and leave the table, the morning had gone better than expected as I spent time getting more acquainted with the kitchen arrangement and started on the mid-day meal. Curtis had come back to the house briefly to let me know he and Lester would be taking time away from the fields this afternoon but planned to work late into the evening, which meant an even larger meal at dinnertime and a lighter supper tonight. To my surprise, my weariness had lifted for a while as I worked in the kitchen and busied myself with cooking.
But when Curtis turned on the radio as soon as he and Lester walked in the house as I was finishing the meal preparations, and I heard the voice through the static talking about the war, a wave of exhaustion nearly knocked me off my feet. Sudden and swift came the shutting down as I pulled inward again. Forcing myself to stay downstairs and not hide in the bedroom, not just yet anyway, I had made my way to the porch and the comfort of steady rocking in one of the old chairs. Within minutes, Lester had joined me, keeping me silent company as I stared into the distance without seeing anything.
And that’s how my daughters had found me when they arrived home. As Nora talked about what happened at the store, a part of me heard and wanted to respond in the way I would have responded in the past. But that other part of me, the part of myself that seemed to be so much in control these past months, wanted to stay shut down and pushed away from everything and everyone.
As I’m putting bowls of freshly-cooked vegetables on the table, Curtis comes up to me, a concerned look on his face.
“I know I’ve been asking you to get out of the bedroom,” he says, “but I don’t mean for you to overdo it. Take it slow if you need. You’re looking tired.”
I nod. “I’m about to go upstairs and rest for a bit.” I glance around. “Where are the girls? They need to come eat.”
“I think they went to their room. I’ll go in a minute and let them know dinner’s ready. You’re not eating with us?”
“I’ll get some leftovers later. Just tell Nora and June to clean off the table and put things away after y’all are done.”
I start to turn to go, but Curtis takes my hand to keep me here for a moment. “It’s been nice to see you up and about today.”
“I think it’s been good for me.” I want my words to be true, even though I’m not sure they are.
I head to the stairs but the talk coming from the room my girls share makes me pause because I hear myself mentioned. I get totally still to try to make out the words.
“You know as well as I do that Mama’s not herself anymore.” Nora’s voice sounds frustrated. “She doesn’t care what happened at the store. She doesn’t care about anything anymore.”
The sting of her words makes my breath catch. The guilt I felt earlier rushes back in full strength.
June’s voice is angry, but it turns out her anger is not at me. “Stop it, Nora. You keep blaming her and it’s not her fault. Just think of it like Mama’s taking a trip right now and she’ll be back to us soon.”
“You sound like Daddy,” Nora says. “I bet he told you those very words and you’re just parroting him now. Think for yourself, Junie.”
“Think like you think, that’s what you’re saying. But the way you’re thinking is mean.”
“It isn’t being mean to tell you to see what’s going on with Mama. It’s better than you pretending and holding onto your wishful thinking.”
“So you’ve given up on her?” Now June’s voice is shaky. “You really don’t think she’s going to be like her old self again? Not ever?”
Quiet as I can be, I move away from their door and go up the stairs to my room. I can’t take listening anymore. I can’t risk hearing Nora’s answer to June’s question. Because if her answer is yes, if my oldest daughter has given up on me and is trying to convince her sister to give up on me too, it will hurt beyond measure. It might make me give up too.
But that thought gives me pause. In all honesty, haven’t I given up already?
I sit on the edge of the bed, my mind turning the question around and around.
Then I give a quick shake of my head as fresh strength rises inside, unexpected and surprising.
No, I haven’t given up. Not completely. If I’d already given up, would I have left the bed this morning? Would I have dressed, gone downstairs, cooked, had conversations with the others?
Would I have tried today if I’d already given up?
I pull the crinkled piece of paper from my pocket and peer at the words written there.
I have tried today. Maybe I’m falling short with getting through the whole day, but at least I started the morning by trying.
And trying is not giving up.
The thing is, though, I’m not sure how much, or how long, I can try.
But I realize, with a jolt of amazement, how very much I want to keep trying. I don’t want to give up. I want my life – and that of my family’s – to be better again. It won’t ever be the same as before, that’s true. But I don’t want to let myself, or us, be completely destroyed by our loss.
The sudden surge of strength fades quickly, leaving me drained again. I know I can’t keep trying on my own power. I need more. I need help. As angry and as distant as I’ve grown when it comes to God and my faith, I know my help in times past has always been found there…and this time, moving through my pain without turning to God hasn’t been working well for me.
I think about words Lester said when we were on the porch: I grabbed hold of Jesus as tight as I could and I didn’t let go.
When Robbie died, I had let go. But I can grab hold again and, maybe this time, keep holding on. And maybe this time, I can remember that Jesus will never let go of me.
With a sigh, I again read the words on the piece of wrinkled paper, then tuck it back into my pocket. I get the Bible from its spot near the bed where I left it this morning. All I did earlier was retrieve the piece of paper.
But this time, I open to Psalms and I begin to read.
excerpted from New Life in Harmony by Ginger Simpson White