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Authors: Leigh Talbert Moore

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance

The Truth About Letting Go

BOOK: The Truth About Letting Go
4.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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The Truth About Letting Go

 

By Leigh Talbert Moore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For fighters and for believers and for those in-between.

 

For my readers, friends, and family;

for my beautiful little girls;

and for JRM, always
.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

I’m not ready for this
.

One last time I smooth my hands down the front of my solid black dress, pausing at the belt. It’s made of thin, cotton fabric that should either be tied in a bow, which seems too happy for black, or a square knot, which seems out of place in front. I consider taking it off altogether, but there are belt loops.

The frustration of this insignificant problem causes my jaw to clench. I hastily tie it in a sloppy, sideways bow that could never be considered happy, and as I hold the ends, I study the sterling silver band on my right middle finger.

It’s a simple ring with a tiny filigree design around the edges. Dad had given it to Mom when they were dating, and she’d always worn it. Until seven months ago, when she’d complained it was too tight. She was retaining fluid, she’d said. Dad had laughed and pulled her onto his lap at the bar while I pretended to be very interested in the housing arrangements at State University in Glennville, the college town right across the river. I’d pretty much decided that was where I’d start college next year, along with my brother Will, who’d started two years ago.

Dad had kissed her neck and said to drink more water—the healthy approach to water retention. She had countered that she needed to eat fewer bags of potato chips from the vending machine in her law office when she was working late. Then she’d slid the ring across the counter to me with a little smile. I’d slipped it onto my middle finger as I watched their hands thread together. And while I wasn’t into parental PDAs, I’d been relieved “empty nest syndrome” would not be a problem at my house next year.

It’s the last time I remember seeing Mom laugh.

Turning away from my king-sized bed on which two other designer black dresses lay discarded, I stalk out the door, down the long hall, and toward the kitchen. The pressure in the center of my chest grows tighter with each step. It’s only been a week since the funeral, ten days since he died…

I am
not
ready for this.

Rounding the corner into our huge, open living area that flows into a gourmet kitchen, I’m greeted first by the bitter stench of Stargazer lilies. Bunches of them are arranged around the den, along with the giant peace plant sent from the church. I notice the heavy aroma of Italian food waiting in foil catering bins next.

Stopping at the table, I pull a waxy pink and white petal near me. I want to crumple the pungent bloom in my fist. Punish it with all the anger I feel at what has happened. At what my life is like now.

“He hated the smell of lilies,” I say. “He would’ve wanted gardenias. Or hydrangeas.”

“Those are wedding flowers,” Mom says as she passes me. She’s carrying a platter of mushroom tops and places it on the bar before turning back for another bin. “You don’t use gardenias at a memorial.”

“Even if they were the person’s favorite flower?”

“Ashley.” She stops moving and gives me The Look that says,
Would you please just cooperate today
? I’ve been getting it since Dad got sick six months ago.

One short month after she’d given me her ring to wear. Two short weeks after he’d complained his abdomen and back were aching. After he’d joked that he must’ve been eating too much beta carotene because his skin had a yellowish tinge. He’d grown nostalgic, not depressed, that I was getting ready to leave for college—their baby all grown up. He’d been running more as a result, hoping to release more endorphins. That was why he was losing weight.

So many excuses. That all turned into cancer.

“These ones are OK.” I say.

“Gladiolas,” Mom says, releasing me from The Look.

Abbreviation:
Glads
. Ironic.

She walks back into the kitchen, and I gaze out the windows at the covered patio and even further past into the trees. Just a few feet beyond runs the creek this part of the neighborhood is named for. Shadow Creek.

It’s all man-made, but the developers spent a lot of time making it look like we’re sequestered in a forested camp. Something in the mountains or in Maine. I wonder how long I have to wait before I can sneak out and be alone.

Mom’s tone is impatient as she passes me with a tray of something fried. “Everyone’ll be here in fifteen minutes. Would you please help me plate the rest of this food?”

I frown. “Where’s Will?”

My older brother has been absent all morning. I wonder how he gets a pass while I have to help prepare for a memorial service that bears no resemblance to anything my dad would’ve ever liked. My dad who wrote a health column for a national men’s magazine, complete with recipes. My dad who ran marathons and prepared all our dinners with only fresh, local, and organic ingredients.

The caterers had delivered all the food an hour ago, but most of it is still in its foil packaging. I pull the heavy silver cover off a pasta concoction with white sauce.

“Your brother’s taking care of parking directions and making sure the shuttle’s set to drive people in.” Mom’s light brown hair is pulled back in a severe chignon, and she’s been in a state of controlled agitation for so long, she’s developing a permanent line between her eyebrows.

“Dad would’ve never eaten this. White sauces are full of saturated fat and cholesterol…”

“It’s for the guests. Your dad won’t be eating any—” her voice breaks, but she inhales fast, grabbing control.

My eyes flick to the urn on the mantle, and I feel the pressure in my chest again. The one that precedes either uncontrolled, ugly crying or me screaming and throwing things—which I only do in my mind, of course.

I grip my insides tightly. I will
not
cry. At least not while the guests are here. I can make it through this meal that slays my fitness-conscious, lily-hating dad’s memory, but I’m not sure I can survive another kind-hearted attempt at making me feel better.

For everyone’s information, it is
not
OK that my dad got sick after being healthy all his life. It is
not
OK that the cancer moved so quickly and took all his strength so fast. It is
not
OK that one minute he was racing me around the neighborhood or riding bikes and laughing, and the next he was a frail ghost of his former self barely able to lift his hand to mine, much less the corners of his mouth when I entered his room.

By the end he was wheelchair bound. I watched him sit in 90-degree heat and shiver with cold. He’d gotten so skinny his body couldn’t warm itself, and he looked like he’d escaped from a refugee camp.

The hospice nurse never left in those days. I stood in the doorway and watched it happen. I watched him breathe his last breath and quietly leave us. The line across his forehead strained and then softened. And that was it. He was gone.

My eyes are hot with tears as I stare at the white sauce. They will all be here soon ready to give comfort. They will all tell me how it will help when I go back to school next week and get back to normal. They’ll say the best way to survive something like this is by focusing on the spring luau and organizing summer cheerleader tryouts and prom—ridiculous things that don’t matter anymore.

“Shuttle’s ready and the directions are all marked.” My brother walks in, and I swallow the knot in my throat.

Will had taken spring semester off from college to help care for our father, and in the last few days, he’s morphed into something of a leader for our broken little tribe. He pushes back his light brown hair and grabs a drink, and I can’t help thinking how much he looks like Mom. I really do look the most like our missing member. Dad and I shared the same honey blonde hair and blue eyes.

“Look at this,” I say, lifting the foil pan and pouring the slimy-white pasta mixture into a chafing dish.

“Smells good.” He sticks a finger in the empty foil container and tastes the white sauce. Will’s never been into fitness, riding bikes, or running with me and Dad, but he’s always been slim. “Bruschetta’s?”

I nod, watching him. The caterer is well-known in our area and everyone loves their food, even Dad, although he preferred their lighter fare. Mom’s right. It’s for them, not him.

My brother stops moving and studies my face. “Will you be okay for a few hours? It’s the last thing we have to do.”

“What if I say no?”

“Hey,” he tries to reach for me, but I step back. A frown flickers across his brow and disappears, still his voice remains soothing. “I know you’re sad and angry. We all are, but Mom needs us.”

“Why didn’t you cry?” My voice is not soothing. It’s hard, like everything now.

“What?” His frown returns.

“You never cried for him. Why not?”

Will’s eyes flash, but he doesn’t engage. Instead he walks over to me. I hold still as he puts his arm around my shoulder.

“This hurts. Like hell. But we’ve got to stick together now,” he says quietly. “We can’t turn on each other.”

“You didn’t answer my question.” I shrug off his arm and walk out, but my reflection in the large, foyer mirror stops me. Solemn eyes, fair hair, I squint to blur my vision and try to see Dad’s face in mine. It only makes me hiccup a breath.

Five more minutes and they’ll all be here.

 

* * *

 

Reverend Andrews clasps my mother’s hand. “Gretchen. We’re so sorry for your loss.”

Tall and slim, with floppy blonde hair and wire-rimmed glasses, he’s the first to arrive with his wife Jackie. Like everyone else in this town, we’ve attended their church since we moved here, and Mom has asked him to say a few words about my dad before everyone starts eating.

“Ashley.” The pastor’s wife embraces me, and I’m surrounded by the smell of fresh eucalyptus. “Your father was a good man. I can’t say I know how you feel, but you’re in my prayers. We have to trust that God’s ways are higher than our ways and this is all a part of His plan.”

Her long, dark hair is twisted into a knot at the base of her neck, and her voice is smooth like warm milk or tea with honey. I glance away and catch my brother staring at me. I remember his instructions and simply nod. What good would it do to challenge her? To demand she tell me how my dad’s death is somehow part of God’s plan.

“How’s Harley?” I say instead. Their only daughter is two years older than me, and she moved to Glennville last year for college. We weren’t close, but it’s all I can think of to say.

“She’s doing well.” Mrs. Andrews smiles in that soothing way. “Time is a great healer. Try to hang in there, OK?”

I don’t smile back, and she moves on to my mother. The line of people grows longer, and each time someone squeezes my arm or gives me a sympathetic look, I slide back a tiny bit more until I’m out of the line. As the crowd thickens in our large living room and the soft voices become a dull roar, I know I won’t be missed. I’m sick of the aching tightness in my chest and forcing myself to be strong. My mom is the focus of everyone’s attention, and if I move slowly enough, I can slide to the back wall, down the short hall that turns into our mud room, and out the door without anyone even noticing. A few more steps, and I’m free.

Dr. Andrews is just starting to speak as I hide my shoes in the holly bush and sprint down the side of the house and into the yard next to ours. It feels so good to run again, even if it reminds me of Dad.

My annoying black dress at least has a full skirt, so it’s easy for me to hop the low stone wall and jog up the bank to the old tree that stands on a little bluff overlooking the creek. Once I’m there, I sit down and press my back straight against its trunk, breathing deeply. It’s still hard to pull air all the way into my lungs, but the running helps.

Soon the only sound is the rippling current. I close my eyes and don’t move for several minutes. The trickling of the water, the warm spring breeze, the tall grasses that wave in the wind, I’m somewhere far away where no pain can find me. It’s a peaceful place, a place where Dad might be now. I want to stay here and imagine I can find him. I don’t move.

Don’t move…

Heavy breathing breaks the stillness, ruining it all. Another person is coming up the bluff and from the sound, working hard to do it. I release the breath I’ve been holding and turn to see a girl with wispy brown hair pushing on her thighs as she climbs. She’s tall and very overweight, and her face is spotted red. A sheen of sweat is forming across her upper lip, and as I watch her struggle to climb the small hill, I recognize her from school. She’s one of a small group of big girls I’ve seen a few times in the cafeteria. It’s possible we’ve spoken before, but her group usually avoids mine in what I suppose is some sort of reverse-discrimination. I’ve never really cared, and today that seems to be forgotten.

BOOK: The Truth About Letting Go
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