Right after the funeral and for many more days, Leo’s headaches became increasingly worse. Dr. Reeves said this was due to the concussion and stress. By his strict order, Leo was no longer allowed to do anything except stay in bed. He wasn’t permitted to watch TV, use his phone to text, read, play video games or do anything that might cause any exertion. Dr. Reeves told us that a concussion in children and teens was a very serious matter and he called what Leo must endure “cognitive rest.”
Today was the first day since the funeral that he would be allowed to be up and about.
I thought again of the past week. Taking care of Leo had helped keep my mind off of my terrible loss… and it didn’t. With each day, he improved, however, there was one scar on his face that remained. So, every time I looked at him, that lingering mark was a constant reminder of what I’d lost. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how horrible it was for him to see it.
I wanted desperately to understand and be there for him. I sat near him for hours at a time. I tried to speak cheerfully to him and to be encouraging. But I could tell plainly enough from his solemn expression, he knew it was a farce.
I glanced at him while he slept and guilt overwhelmed me, covering me like a stifling blanket. Feeling badly about how the funeral ended didn’t even begin to cover my feelings of remorse.
I sighed. This line of thought wasn’t good for anyone. If only there weren’t so many little reminders each day of Jilly… I could get through this better.
Seeing that Leo was sound asleep, I showered and changed. I needed to talk to Liev. We had been civil to one another but we’d also been avoiding speaking about our argument at the funeral.
I had just put my hair up when Liev came into our room. We both started speaking at the same time.
“Memphis, we need to talk-”
“Liev, I need to talk to-”
We both stopped. It would have been humorous on any other occasion. He spoke first this time.
“I can’t do this anymore, Memphis.”
Those words stabbed at my heart as surely as a dagger would have. My face drained of all color and I stood frozen.
“Are you leaving me?” I choked out. Of course he was. Why wouldn’t he? I was always so selfish, so awful at handling this disaster. Any disaster. I’d been absolutely and unforgivably terrible to the one person I loved most in the world. Tears stung my eyes as I thought of life without him. The all too familiar sensation of being pulled down by quicksand began to overtake me as I desperately waited for his answer.
“No, no, no,” he said quickly. “I’m trying to apologize. I’m so ashamed about how terrible I was to you. To everyone. But I love you, honey. I want us to get back on track. I just… I can’t tell you how deeply sorry I am.”
My breath caught in my throat and I think I actually hiccuped a little, trying to fight back my tears. The wave of relief that swept over me was stronger than any I had ever felt in my life. It covered me completely and left me with the startling revelation that I had been more worried about my marriage than I had even realized. I couldn’t stand losing Jilly. Losing Liev on top of it would have been my complete and utter ruination.
“I’m the one who’s sorry. How I behaved at the funeral… well, since the accident, it’s inexcusable. I love you so much, Liev. I don’t ever want to be without you.”
He slowly let out his breath. Had he been afraid our relationship was beyond repair, too? Is that how bad things had gotten?
Tenderly, he reached for my hand.
I didn’t hesitate but went straight into his strong arms. This is where I belonged. Even though our world had fallen apart, I still fit against him just right. That hadn’t changed.
Feeling much better than I had since our tragedy, I decided to make a nice dinner. I hadn’t cooked since the accident had happened and it was about time I worked on helping the children feel as if their world was stable.
As I prepared our meal, I heard Leo padding downstairs in his bare feet. My mother’s ears perked up as he moved about the living room.
As the spaghetti sauce simmered, I found him there, lost in thought. Sitting next to him, it was difficult to find the words I really wanted to say to him. I’d been trying to comfort him, but I had no idea if any of it had been helpful at all.
When I tried to put my arm around him, he shrugged me away. So we sat in silence. I could only hope my presence was at least a little comforting to him.
When dinner was ready, I asked Rachel to set the table so I could wash the saucepan out. I liked to clean as I cooked so there wouldn’t be as big a mess later.
As the family gathered to the table, I couldn’t have anticipated how our first meal as a family would go, but I should have known it was going to be rough.
The white elephant in the room was Jilly’s empty chair. None of us could bear to look at it.
It was especially heartbreaking and awkward that Rachel had accidentally set a plate of food there as if Jilly would suddenly pop in, throw her backpack on the floor next to the coat rack and join us, gleefully telling us about her day.
Leo didn’t touch his plate. He kept glancing down the table at Jilly’s empty place.
I couldn’t eat either, but it wasn’t because of the extra plate where Jilly normally sat, it was because the tension in the room had gotten so tight. I could sense this would probably not end well, but I felt powerless to stop it.
“I’m sorry,” Rachel feebly said. She’d realized the mistake as soon as we all sat down. “I forgot she wasn’t going to be here.”
Liev put on his best smile, although strained, gently saying, “I know and it’s okay. You don’t have to feel sorry about that.”
We made small talk with the girls, asking them about their time at their Aunt’s house and what they did. At first, the girls seemed uncertain, answering carefully. But before long, the conversation loosened up a tiny bit and they were smiling about something silly that had happened at school. There was no laughing or real joy, we weren’t ready for that yet, but this was a small start.
Leo just sat very still, staring at nothing.
I kept trying to think of ways I could help Leo feel better but my mind was stumped. That chair and plate at the end of the table were a cruel and oppressive reminder of when it all went terribly wrong.
When dinner was finally over, Liev suggested Leo play something on the piano. I know whenever Liev was upset, he played music on his guitar or the piano. Hopefully, this would benefit our son as well.
Liev stood by, watching him, listening to him play a beautiful and haunting song as I began to clear the table.
“I don’t know this one,” Liev said. “It’s really good. Did you make it up?”
Leo shrugged a little as he continued to play. The song was gloomy sounding, yet surprisingly soothing.
Suddenly, he banged all the keys at once and leaped from the piano bench, turning on Liev, pointing in his face.
“I can’t do this!” he yelled.
“Kid, it’s okay-” Liev sputtered.
I stood frozen with a plate of uneaten spaghetti as Leo interrupted him.
“-No, it’s really not! It never will be! We came into this world together and now I’m just alone! Forever!”
I quickly began to shoo the girls upstairs as Liev pulled Leo into his arms and held him tightly.
As we went up to their bedroom, I heard Liev saying, “I’m so sorry. You’re not alone…”
I excused myself and went to my own bedroom for a moment to take some deep breaths and wipe my eyes.
When I returned to the girls, they were in their nightgowns but clearly weren’t ready for bed.
Rachel was sitting on her bed. I touched her pretty face, smoothing the hair out of her eyes as she asked, “Mama, you know I didn’t do that on purpose, right?”
I smiled softly, trying to reassure her. “Of course I know that. You’re a sweet girl and I know you’d never do anything to hurt anyone. I completely understand why you set a plate there. You haven’t done anything wrong so I don’t want you to worry about it.”
Daylynn was concerned about things, too. “Are we all staying here?”
I took her hand and asked, “What do you mean? We’re not going anywhere.”
She looked as if she might cry. “Jilly was gone so fast without even saying goodbye. And I know she’s not coming back. I just want to know if anyone else in our family is leaving?”
Now tears welled up in my eyes, too. How could I explain this to her when my own heart wondered how life could possibly continue?
Tenderly, I touched her angelic face and took her hand. “No one wants to leave. We’d like to stay together forever-”
“-Did Jilly leave because I was bad? I was mad at her for telling me I couldn’t hang out with her and Leo so I turned off her alarm clock and she was late for school that day!” she exclaimed in one breath as if she had finally relieved herself of some terrible, guilty sin.
“And I told Jilly to go away and leave me alone when she said I had to take my bath and get my pajamas on just a couple nights before she left!” Daylynn blurted.
In unison, both girls started sobbing and I couldn’t get them into my arms fast enough.
“We made her leave,” Rachel sobbed. “We’re so sorry, Mommy!”
I regarded them both with eyes full of unshed tears and bit my lower lip, trying to stay in control of my emotions. When I spoke, I tried to imitate Liev’s quiet and soothing voice.”Girls, you are both loved and always have been. People don’t die because they want to punish us. Jilly adored you girls and was very proud to be your sister. Besides, she’d probably forgotten all about those things by then. It was a car accident that took her from us, not the two of you.”
“Well, then I’m mad at her,” Rachel said quite firmly, through her tears. “She’s messed everything up!”
Daylynn wiped her face with the skirt of her nightgown even though she was still tearful. “If only I had been really good and nice to her.”
I’m not sure I was entirely prepared for this discussion, but I suppose it was good that it happened. It meant they were processing this. It also showed me where they were and what they were thinking. I knew the girls had been confused and upset. How could they not have been? Now it was time to reassure them and help them through this.
“Can I tell you something?” I ventured. “I was mad at her, too. And that’s normal. See, I was angry that she left me to hurt so badly. But I’m not mad at her now because it’s not her fault. It took some time, but then I remembered how much Jilly loved us and that she didn’t want to leave. And, Daylynn, I also thought something similar. I thought, if only I’d been a better mom… But we know Jilly would never want us to feel this way, don’t we? She wouldn’t want us to blame ourselves.” They nodded and I wiped their faces with tissues. Rachel sat on her bed again, but Daylynn wasn’t ready. “What I want you two to remember is how much Jilly loved you and that you didn’t cause any of this to happen.”
I hugged both girls again and told them how much I loved and cherished them. One thing I’d learned is that life is fleeting; I must remember to say these things while I could.
That night, I spent most of my time with the girls, painting their nails, reading to them, cuddling with them and finally, tucking them in. I had been given these precious gifts and never again would I take them for granted.
Before going to my own bed, I peeked in on Leo only to find that both he and Liev had fallen asleep.
I hesitated, wondering if I should wake Liev up. He hadn’t slept well in so long, he should go to bed. As I approached to awaken him, I changed my mind. If I woke him up, he wouldn’t go to bed like he should. Instead, he would sit with Leo and still not sleep. He would probably wake up on his own soon anyway when his knees began to hurt.
I sat in the chair I was so accustomed to being in and watched them, contemplating the things that had brought us to this point. It might be a long time before my family healed, but today, I felt like there was a beginning.