When Benjamin called to tell me Carl had cancer, I immediately commenced making plans. Four days later, Benjamin was showing me into the guest room of my old house. He said goodnight, and I waited until the quietude settled to tiptoe up to Carl’s room. I stood at the foot of Carl’s bed for a minute, or maybe a hundred. It was late, but I couldn’t move. He stirred and opened his eyes to give me a small smile. I shifted to hold his hand.
“I haven’t dreamed about you in so long. You look divine,” he sighed as I moved my thumb slowly over the back of his hand. I couldn’t speak.
“I prayed you’d come.” He sighed. “There are so many things I need to tell you.”
“Did you? I was terrified you’d throw me out on the street.” Wet tears raced down my cheeks. It was cold, it was warm, it was a river.
“No, no, not you. Not ever.” A single tear melted along his bristled cheek.
“Carl, I …”
“Bernice, it’s been so exhausting without you. I didn’t know how to go on. But then I had to anyway. I loved you, you know. Once upon a time you were my whole world and now I don’t know where in the world you are. And it’s hard. It used to be devastating.”
“I loved you too, Carl.” He turned over, went back to sleep. Maybe he’d been asleep the entire time. I brushed at my damp face and headed back downstairs to the guest room.
Wide awake for hours, I burned into the edges of my memory the interaction with Carl. When I woke the next morning, I kept my eyes closed for a long time. When I finally stirred it was early, but I heard Ben in Carl’s room so I tiptoed up the stairs and stood outside in the hallway beyond.
For long moments, I basked in the comforting sounds of their murmurs. Then, “I have a surprise for you Dad, it came last night. Let me go get it.” He rounded the corner and found me waiting. When he motioned me in, I walked forward tentatively, trembling and blinking too fast.
“Hi, Carl. I popped in to see how you are.”
“Popped in. Why are you here?” He closed his eyes.
“This is quite a scare you’ve given,” I swallowed, “the kids.”
“I need to take a nap.”
“That’s fine, Carl, I can wait to talk when you’re ready to wake up.”
“We don’t need to talk.”
“I think we do.”
He cleared his throat hard and fast. “Ben! Come here, come now. I need you, Ben.”
“Carl, I didn’t mean to upset you. I want to help. To make less work for you, to let you know …” I stayed at the end of his bed, twisting my hands.
“I’m fine. Thanks.”
“I’ll be downstairs if you need me,” Carl wrapped the fleece blanket around his shaking body, and I raced out of the room as if there was a band of horses chasing me.
I was the only one in the hospital room when Carl stirred. He glanced over me. “The offspring are fluttering around me as if I’m going to expire and leave them with ten million dollars apiece. Okay, kiddos, have you seen my bank account?”
“It’s okay, Carl, it’s okay.” I patted his hand, but he pulled it away.
“I’m not old, not that sick, only a bit tired. If you all would give me some space, let me get some actual rest into these bones, I’d probably start to grow a little better. Reese acts like I’m dying. Helloooo, Reesey, I’m not dying.” He plucked at his hospital gown.
“And you,” he turned sternly, “You’re acting as if there wasn’t an explosion the size of Mount Pinatubo between us thirteen years ago, and we’ll go back to feeding each other bonbons in the nude at any second.”
“Carl,” I swallowed hard.
“The doctors act as if I’m a medical mystery, inspecting me as if I’m a fossilized specimen, not a living, breathing human.” We eyed each other. Since my arrival, we’d made no attempts to talk about my previous departure or my current presence, Carl’s sickness an easy excuse to let everything else stay under the rug for the time being.
“Carl,” I shifted in my seat and leaned forward, placing my face within inches of his.
“Carl, we need to have this conversation.”
“Not here. Not now.” He turned his face away.
“You know, you weren’t a saint” I trailed off, and I couldn’t hold in a sniffle. “And what if…”
“What if what?” He rolled over and shoved his eyes shut before adding, “good grief.”
I fell asleep in the chair beside him and woke to Ben bustling about in the corner; I guessed he was on the phone with Maya from the way he slowly assembled the pieces in front of him and said over and over, “Dad loved them. He was ecstatic, I promise.”
I peeked at Carl who was glowering. Maya sent him essential oils and a contraption to diffuse them all about.
“Why the heck would I need oil? I’ve got a barrel of canola in the kitchen, and a frying pan to go with it. This is the most ridiculous – ” but Ben hushed him and tucked his blankets in tight so he couldn’t fight.
Carl snorted loudly, and I hoped she couldn’t hear it through the phone lines. When he glared back at me, I closed my eyes once more.
I don’t know how many girlfriends Benjamin had through the years, but I adored Maya, knew she was a keeper. Why it’s taken Ben so many years to move toward something more permanent with her is beyond me. I stopped asking him after the first year because he got ornery about it.
If there was anything I’d learned about my offspring it was that they had minds of their own, and it simultaneously made me proud and stupefied me.
“Yeah, I’m working on it now, love you babe. Talk soon.” From my squinted viewpoint I watched Ben shove his phone into his pocket and move to Carl with the gadget. I always thought Maya was a little goofy with her “snake oils,” but they smelled quite nice and comforting. Lord knows nothing else in this dismal place smelled even halfway as decent.
Ben lectured Carl on being open-minded, that the oils would support his body systems, and I held in a grin. Carl looked as if he was gearing up for a fight, but before he made his vexing public, Ben spilled an entire bottle of Frankincense over them both.
“Is it because you forgot the gold and myrrh?” Carl glared at our son.
“Dad jokes,” Ben muttered as he grabbed a purple bottle, placed 10 drops of an oil he called “Forgiveness” into the gizmo and turned it on.
“I don’t like the smell.”
“That means you need it.”
“Oh, okay then, that changes everything.” He made little attempt to mask the oozing sarcasm.
“Dad, give it a rest already.”
“Humph,” Carl closed his eyes and let the Forgiveness wash over him. If only it was that easy.
Carl opened one eye and scowled between us. “Of course, I’ll be a free Carl in this second-chance at life. I’ll be open-minded and wild, grow out my greying locks, maybe get a tattoo. But there is no need to talk about it, no need to squash out my soul with a lavish speech.”
He turned his back on us both.
“Lord have mercy, son, I’m elegance personified. I haven’t had a t-shirt on this body since 1979, and I don’t plan to start now.” I felt the lightness of my samite shirt under my folded arms. Benjamin stood across the kitchen counter from me with the offending offering slung over his shoulder. He’d bought the three of us Superman t-shirts “so we could match Dad.”
“There’s no need to lob it at my face next time. And this is for Dad, you know, the man you came back to see.” He brandished it in my direction.
“Benjamin, unanimity begins in the heart, not displayed across this body in tawdry form for all the world to see.” I pulled out a bowl and spoon, measuring cups and a knife.
“I’ll keep it for a few days in case you change your mind,” he grabbed his laptop from the kitchen table and shoved it into his satchel.
“There’s really no need,” I cubed the butter. “But, I will purchase a nice Superman brooch off the Amazon for my hats and sweaters, which should keep the peace and keep it classy.” I watched his dark hair and broad shoulders disappear down the hallway as he departed without comment. It mystified me that he and Reese were once small enough to live inside my body and now they were so full-grown; so full too, of opinions.
I would wear the brooch proudly, especially since I’d never seen Carl look worse, not even when he had pneumonia on our second anniversary, not even when he had strep throat. He was clammy and looked a bit green about the edges. I was shocked when I arrived and saw the state of things. Shocked. Carl looked plumb awful, all grey around the edges and wispy. They were barely feeding him.
I snuck casserole after casserole into the hospital room, but those nurses must have been born with a sixth sense. I got into more than one wrestling match with them, just trying to feed my man. Every time I came back, the hospital staff handed me another list of preferred foods they’d compiled for him. It started with kale and ended with carrots.
“Dullards.” So I was back in the kitchen, starting from scratch.
Benjamin reentered and moved to the table, pulling out a stack of papers.
“This Momma’s got a family to feed and Lord knows no one else has their head screwed on straight enough to throw together a decent meal in this place. It’s fully up to me and Loretta Lynn.” Having Carl in the hospital gave me a renewed sense of purpose for coming. Day after day, I turned up my Loretta and marched back to the stove. Ben looked up and offered me a thumbs up.
“I’m going to get a bit of work done, if you don’t mind me sitting here, Mom. My room is too depressing.”
“Go ahead, sugar, you know I’ll keep to myself.” I eyed with dismay the ingredients lined out before me. “Good gravy.”
“Hmmmm?” Benjamin didn’t look up.
Thankfully, I had mad talents in the kitchen and I concocted a carrot, coconut, kale casserole I knew would be world famous. I added extra cheese, extra love. I threw in some butter on top. Carl would drool. He’d always loved my cooking. If there was any way to lessen his hatred of me, it started with butter, ended with cheese, and would be assembled in this kitchen.
“When I have time in my life again, after nursing Carl back to life and post publishing my memoirs, I really should consider a recipe book.” I slid the casserole into the pre-heated oven and watched Ben run his hands through his coffee-colored hair, looking between his computer and the stack of papers.
“This morning I purchased a colossal sequin purse to sequester my cooking, and I applied a bit more blush and a pretty purple hat to distract the guards.” Benjamin sighed loudly, and I slipped surreptitiously through the doors. I had time to apply some fragrance before the food would be ready for transportation.
Baby, I’m coming.
“He’s not yours, Bernice.” When I arrived, Reese stood at the foot of her sleeping father’s hospital bed like a sentry, and I excused myself yet again. Benjamin was my only ally. And Rocky too. Reese hadn’t spoken ten words in a single sentence to me since I arrived, and I needed to minimize her opportunities to flaunt her rejection.
Laws, she was pretty as a peach. I was surprised at the difference between the photos Ben had shared through the years and her youth and beauty up close.
It had been years since I last saw my Reese, 1,428 days to be exact. I did the math on my plane ride south. I saw her at my father’s funeral and right after that Ben had us run into each other at his place in Knoxville without giving either of us a head’s up, as if multiple sightings in a row would make a difference. She’d insisted on sitting at the exact opposite end of the table from me that night, was marginally cordial, nothing more. But I would have known my baby girl in a crowd any day of the week. That mattered little, as she didn’t want to see me.
Over the past thirteen years, I’d seen her a total five times, and after she led with, “Hey,” she categorically refused to go deeper.
“Well, I’m fine thanks for asking.” She didn’t wait to hear whether this was true or only a lie I told myself and others.
I knew deep down my babies needed me, so I came. Sure, I had other things to do, but I’ve always been one for taking care of my kids. Okay, some would insert the obvious here, that I left them ages ago, in their formative years, which wasn’t quite the same as taking care of them. But I didn’t leave them, I left Carl. They happened to live in the same house, and it got complicated.
I had a psychiatrist tell me once that the twins probably thought I directly abandoned them too, but I’ll tell you what I told him: I don’t want to talk about it.
I had my life all set up in Canada, but I left the maple syrup and the igloos in a hurry to come be with my people.
When I made my plans to travel back to Omaha, my friends fluttered about me and asked what it would be like to see Carl, to go back home after all this time, but I didn’t tell them my secrets.
I told them it would be horribly painful, which was true.
I didn’t let them see just how so.
I said it would be surreal, seeing Carl and my kids all together again.
I didn’t tell them that the thought of that ripped my heart clean in two.
I said it was needed.
I didn’t say it was thirteen years overdue.
When I left all those years ago, I moved to New York, to make my big city dreams come true. But the city was suddenly dingy, overcrowded, too close to Omaha and all that I left behind.
My parents said I was being childish, they begged me to go home to Carl, then told me sternly. I stopped talking to them.
Carl’s parents wouldn’t take my calls.
My best friend, Rosemary, listened for hours, told me she understood, then told me to go home, that I should talk to Carl, say to him all that I said to her. I stopped talking to her too.
I couldn’t bring myself to call Neil and Leah, hear the hurt or the accusations in their voices, so I didn’t bother picking up the phone to ring Charlie’s parents.
When I was young, maybe seven or eight, my great-uncle Henri moved in with us. He told me story after story of his childhood in Canada. He told me he had a cottage and made shoes and sang. He was happy. He painted his stories with laughs and colors so glossy I was in the meadows with him, and I was happy too.
I needed to take to the meadows of Canada.
I wanted to be happy again.
So after two weeks, when New York was too confining, I bought a ticket for the only other place in the world I’d ever craved, a place I’d never been but knew I would grow to love.
When I flew to Canada, thirteen years previously, I was squished in a row with a family of five. The children were all younger than the twins, but it didn’t check the nostalgia. Reese used to wear her hair in pigtails like their youngest’s. The last time I saw Ben, less than a month before, more than a lifetime, he’d been wearing a red plaid shirt like their eldest’s.
The three squirmed and complained beside me, and their mother gave me a squinty-eyed glare when I watched them. I wanted to say, “No, it’s fine, I have kids of my own. I’m not annoyed. I’m not a creep. I’m just a mother.”
But my voice had left me, and I looked away as she hugged her daughter close. I cried the entirety of the three-hour flight from JFK to Toronto, the heartbreak issuing forth in salty tears I tasted for days.
When the stewardess announced we would be landing soon, I gasped in great quantities of air, focusing it toward my wildly beating heart. My shoulders pressed hard against the airplane seat, and I closed my eyes.
Canada would be my new home, my new life.
My mom was a Canadian citizen so immigration was a breeze.
When the forms asked me if I was married or single. I left the small white boxes blank, preferring deportation to admitting my new reality.
There would never be a need to look backward. There was only here, only now. Until now became a moment that demanded my return.