Ruminations on Autumn Clean-up (or not) and Time

I share my little plot with 8 trees large enough that I hope none fall on my house. They make a lot of leaves. If the spirit moves me I will rake them into mounds alongside the hedge or into my raised garden bed where they do their beautiful business of rotting.

My neighbors across the street have no trees and I wonder if they hate me when the wind blows in their direction? We are friends so I doubt it – but I’m sure they feel a tad exasperated by the mess my arbor-love makes on their tree-less property. And I wonder a little if their intention is to torture me every Saturday when the landscaper comes with a blower to blow mostly my tree’s leaves off their perfect lawn. There are not many sounds I hate more than the sound of a gas blower as it goes on and on and on.

My gardening… philosophy? technique? I search for the word that best describes my intentional laissez-faire attitude around autumn clean-up. I believe and there is much proof, that left to itself, nature takes better care of itself than when we meddle. The decomposed leaves enrich my property so it doesn’t make sense to stuff them into bags to be picked up by the noisy trucks emitting additional carbon gases into our atmosphere while they do it.

There is some clean-up I eventually get around to. I twist the thorny vines and weeds into cans to be picked up by those same trucks or smash them into the back of my car to drive them to the brush dump myself. Every year invasive weeds like Japanese knotweed and bittersweet win the battle in at least one corner of my yard. Every spring I have high hopes that this will be the year I’ll keep said corner clear of growth. But as we move into summer and the heat and bugs amp up, I give up, conceding until autumn when I can more easily pull and snip at the recently frost-killed invasive plants.

I think about time and how it makes some things easier. Of course body aches and wrinkles alert me to the challenges time can bring = aging. But mostly I see time as my ally. With time (and effort) things that once were entrenched in my actual and metaphorical ‘patch’ become easier to deal with. A few short months ago, I was daunted by an overwhelming green mass full of thorns and worse — ticks. After a few frosty nights, the thicket shrank to skeletal twists I could tackle.

In the garden on an unseasonably warm day, I brace myself with bent knees, heels dug into the earth, inhaling a deep breath of mint (my advice: grow only in pots!) while yanking on a resistant tangle, I think of old resentments, anger, grief – pulling harder, feeling the strain into my legs until with a snap, release down to my core, my soul. Looking closely at the branches of the fruit trees saved now from being swallowed up by this wild growth, I see the teeniest, tightest little buds. Hope.

 

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New to the Neighborhood

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Dawn and dusk have drawn closer and shorter days means that on the 5 days a week I work, there’s less light for long walks with dear Rufus. Morning outings are always short – just quick forays down the block with just enough time to sniff around and lift a leg a few times before heading back inside so I can get ready for work. When there’s enough daylight left on my return home, I like to take him either to the dog park where he trips over his own little legs running so hard and fast, or for a 2 mile jaunt I call the river walk. Either way, it’s a welcome outing for both of us. And even more fun when Molly joins us, her and I gabbing as we trade off on holding the leash of our tugging pooch. (we are lax on training)

The dawn walks are just me and Rufus. And lately: a fox. The first morning I saw him from a distance – a creature sitting in the middle of the road. I didn’t have my glasses on and couldn’t quite make out what it was but certainly it was bigger than one of our known-residents – neither rabbit nor groundhog. It sat very still with it’s back to us, smack in the middle of the street. I squinted to try and make out – was it a dog weirdly sitting there so still? Then it stood up and leapt into the woods. hmmm.

A few mornings later, we met fox face-to-face. It wasn’t frightened and in fact, stepped towards us even as I stamped the ground and cried ‘scat!’. It seemed more curious than threatening but it’s bigger than Rufus, who didn’t make a peep. I scooped up our wee dog and dashed back home. Fox did not follow. At first I wasn’t sure if it was fox or coyote – but it’s tail is very bushy and body slender. A beautiful creature! But I was shaken, imagining it attacking our beloved little dog.

Rufus and I have encountered fox 3 more times, sometimes days in a row. Fox is fearless, stepping towards us – never aggressively – perhaps wondering about Rufus’s fox-like ears. Maybe this youngish-kit thinks he’s a cousin. He probably wants to sniff him to find out – or to see if he wants to eat him for breakfast. I called animal control to ask their advice, whether I should be alarmed. They said it might be a young cub, alone and indeed curious – although fox will eat a cat so if our dog is that size (yes, he’s smaller) then I should carry a stick and make sure Rufus had had his rabies shot – just in case. I’ve taken to carrying an umbrella or rake during the low-light hours. I’m sure the neighbors think I’m nuts.

Interestingly, Molly has yet to encounter fox and teased me that I was imagining it but now is spooked about taking him out when it’s dark. My sister suggested the fox is my spirit animal and in fact, these encounters have begun to feel a little magical. I went down the internet search foxhole of what fox encounters might mean – and of course choose the positive interpretations — especially seizing on the Japanese symbolism of longevity and protection from evil. Just please, dear fox, do not eat Rufus.

PS: My neighbor shared this great photo of said fox.

A beauty, no?

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Chapter 35

Kyoto 2004

 In July my friend Naomi called from Japan. When I lived in Kyoto, Naomi and I spent many late nights in hip bars discussing art and men. Now we spoke only once or twice a year. I told her about Neil’s suicide and heard the shock in her silence and quickly filled it in with reassurances.

“We’re doing okay now. And hey – I made Molly a promise that within the next two years, I’m taking her to Japan to show her all the places I always talk about.”

“Two years? Why two years? What about this year? Come now! I have some money just sitting in the bank in San Francisco. I’m going to send it to you so you can come to Kyoto this year.”

“That’s very generous of you Naomi, but I can’t take your money.”

“What do you mean? Of course you can. I’m sending you a check today, so make plans. I’ll also send you the name of my friend who’s a travel agent – she can find a great deal on flights,” she insisted.

A few days later, a check arrived in the mail for $3000. I brought it down to Chris’s house.

“Look – she really did it – she sent me the money! What do I do with this?” I held the check up in disbelief.

“What are you talking about? That’s great – you go to Japan – what do you think? What a good friend you have.”

“I have many good friends, including you guys. But Chris, I can’t take this!” I waved the check.

“Why not? She wants you to have it or she wouldn’t have sent it to you.”

“But it’s too much!”

“What if she had sent you airline tickets instead? Would you accept them?”

“I guess.”

“So what’s the difference? You have to go. You need this and Molly needs it too.”

We were sitting in Chris’s kitchen drinking red wine. Molly and I came here almost daily for the warmth and comfort of being with this family, sharing both tears and laughter. Chris was right, if Naomi had sent tickets, I would use them. We would go.

 

In late August, Molly and I wandered through Kyoto’s sweltering streets as if in a dream. We often spoke of Neil on this trip and I continued to try to make sense of his suicide. We wondered aloud to each other why he chose to give up a chance at having even one day like we were enjoying. This sadness ran like an undercurrent through everything – wading into the Kamo River trying not to disturb the elegant egrets, ducking under the noren into tiny restaurants where Molly learned the etiquette of slurping her noodles. How could he have chosen to miss this experience – to miss life? I imagined him here with us, too tall for the little Japanese souvenir shops near Kiyomizu-dera temple, flirting with uniformed schoolgirls, giggling behind their hands at the attention of so handsome a foreigner. They would have thought him a movie star and he would have played along, rattling off the movies he’d been an extra in. Molly watched as smokers made their way into the designated smoking car on the Shinkansen train and said, “That’s where Daddy would have been!”

Conjuring him like this, we laughed affectionately, his phantom presence always with us. I had often imagined the three of us one day making this trip. Now as Molly and I visited spots I once described to Neil, I wished he were.

My life in Kyoto had been a time of solitude, contemplation. It was the perfect place for me to be now. Perhaps I might rediscover the centered person who had spent hours wandering temples and gardens for inspiration. Back then, I’d pedal my bicycle back from the rock gardens to paint or carve wood sculptures in my postage stamp sized garden. After a decade of obsessing over Neil, I needed to find my way back to that self-possessed person once so alive to the world. Kyoto was also where I first recognized the longing to be a mother, to have a family. I held Molly’s sticky hand in my own as I led her through my old neighborhood.

“That’s where I lived.” I pointed to the heavy wooden gate hiding the patch of garden and an old wooden house. I stood on the hill over the little river listening to rush of water over stones, remembering that at night, as I lay in my futon under the open window, how the flowing water sounded to me like the cacophony of chattering party guests.

We got lost in the narrow streets, stopping into gardens and temples, stepping across mossy boulders and gravel paths. We sat in the shade of verandas looking out at the sculptural gardens of gravel and rock, the cool wood and tatami mats beneath our bare feet. Meditation came naturally in these ancient spiritual places. I felt I was learning how to breathe again.

 

It had been 15 years since I left Japan, but some of my expatriate friends still made their homes in Kyoto. Jenny, an Australian with flaming red hair and freckles, now had two daughters around the same age as Molly. Jenny’s marriage to a Japanese man had not worked out either. We had a lot to catch up on as we traipsed the girls around Kyoto together. Climbing up the rocky path through the tunnel of seemingly endless orange tori gates of Fushimi Inari – a huge Shinto shrine south of the city we smiled at each other as whooping and laughing, our girls ran ahead of us.

“Well, mate – it’s a credit to you that Molly is wonderful. She seems like a really happy child,” Jenny said.

“Do you think so? I feel like she is okay, although the future will tell. It’s amazing for us to be here together and it feels like coming home to me.”

“Yes, Kyoto really gets under your skin. Would you ever think about living here again?”

Moving back to Kyoto was tempting on so many levels: the safety of the place, the beauty still felt so exotic. And while I knew it was a ridiculous notion, I couldn’t help thinking that by dramatically changing our world, our painful memories might fade faster.

“You know, in some ways I’d love to but it would be too much for me now – and not the best thing for Molly. Besides, my Japanese was never great and I don’t have enough brain cells to really learn to speak it well now. And, I’ll never be able to read which would drive me crazy.”

Jenny laughed, “Yeah, it’s embarrassing how us gaijin live here for all of these years and are still functionally illiterate.”

“I know – my reading ability only goes as far as identifying what bathroom to go into!”

Up ahead the orange tunnel of gates opened into a small clearing with a temple and teashop. The girls stood expectantly, obviously hoping for a treat. Jenny bought them all a drink then we stepped into the little temple. Rows of flickering candles reminded me of my Catholic childhood then the gentle notes of wind chimes, rushing stream behind the temple and Buddha, eyes closed, surrounded by more crudely carved, smaller figures, brought me into my exotic present. I knew the little figures to be jizo, each face and mood different: smiling, laughing, angry, serene, many with little hats on or aprons wrapped around their simple stone torso. The O-jizo-sama is believed to ease suffering and shorten the sentence of those in hell.

“Do you want to light a candle for your Grandpa?” Jenny asked her girls. Her father had died the year before. The girls nodded solemnly. Molly looked over at me.

“Yes, Moll. Light one for Daddy.”

Jenny dug in her bag for coins to give to the old man who sold them their drinks. Each came back with a long match. Jenny showed them how to use a flint stone at the altar to get a flame. The girls carefully chose one of the unlit candles as their own. Molly watched as the sisters expertly lit the wicks, turned to the benevolent face of Buddha, clapped two times then bowed their heads for a few minutes, eyes closed.

“Mommy, do it with me.” Molly whispered, tugging on my arm.

We stood side by side, the air thick with the smell of incense. I watched as she lit a candle in front of a laughing figure. He appeared to laugh even harder in the flickering light of Molly’s candle. She extinguished the long match into the ashes as she’d seen the girls do and side-by-side, we clapped to get the attention of the gods, bent our heads, eyes closed over our prayer hands. A cool breeze broke through the humid air and the leaves on the trees made a strange rustle that sounded like laughter. Molly and I opened our eyes and looked at each other, eyes wide.

“It’s like Daddy is answering us!” she whispered.

“I think he is honey. I think he’s telling us that he’s okay. I can almost hear him laughing!”

I felt it. Tears welled up in my eyes and a profound peace and lightness swept through me. I looked gratefully again at the laughing jizo and silently thanked him for delivering Neil and for delivering me, safely out of hell. Molly’s hand in mine, we stepped out of the temple onto the path. One of Jenny’s girls tapped her on the arm. “You’re it!”

Giggling, Molly followed her friends into the tunnel of orange gates.

 

Epilogue

 

The calendars of our lives become checkered with time, marked by anniversaries of wonderful joys, terrible sorrows. A certain day once just another measure of 24-hours is ever after associated with the thing that happened. May 1st is that day for me. I remember the cloudless, strangely bright morning I found my husband dead. But this year, the morning was shrouded in fog and I was grateful for one less trigger.

Grieving after suicide is complex. Rarely do people kill themselves completely out of the blue. Addiction and depression lived in our little house for years. After his death, mixed in with my shock, anger and anguish was also profound relief. “It’s over.” I said to myself even as I doubled-over in sobs when the policeman confirmed what I knew.

Molly and I were recently discussing the awkwardness of telling people what happened to her father, my husband. We reassure them after they say, “Oh, I’m so sorry” with dismay, maybe a little horror. Sorry to have upset them, we answer, “No, it’s okay, really!” And of course, that’s a weird thing to say – it’s not okay and it was terrible, and it’s still sad. But we have not forgotten how frightened we were as the man we loved was swallowed by addiction. Our day-to-day lives were unstable, his behavior so erratic that we ultimately felt released from a terrible insanity. We have largely made our peace with the bad parts and now remember mostly the good. Time has given us that grace.

The anger that gripped me for years has been replaced by forgiveness. But a desire to understand what damaged him remains. Was it something in his military experience – about which he was so strangely mum? Surely almost 20 years of cocaine use destroyed much of his brain, but I am certain he was self-medicating but for what? Bipolar? Every mental health professional he encountered failed him – and us.

The years pass and I still want to understand what destroyed this good man. As I look at photos, I remember the early days when I first met him in that crazy war zone. There he is standing amidst the ruins in Bosnia, making children laugh. Wasn’t he handsome! His personality filled the room and he made sure with well-told (if rude) jokes and crazy antics that he was the center of attention. What amends was he making, what demons were kept at bay as he helped to save rather than to kill people in that terrible Balkan war where we met? In the center of constant crisis seemed to work like a fix and he thrived on what traumatized me. He seized every opportunity to save someone – and in doing so, for those years at least, he saved himself. He was at his best there.

I am grateful for the grace of time that allows for sadness when I remember him on a date I can never forget.

 

THE END

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Chapter 34

Could we afford to stay in our beloved little house? Did we even want to? Every time I left the house I passed the doorway to the garage and saw him again. I walked quickly and resisted the almost magnetic pull to look at the eave. Part of me longed to leave the scene of Neil’s death behind but my neighborhood had become our family. The last months solidified our roots with friends who absorbed us into their lives and we felt safe. I added numbers over and over as if I might come up with a different total. Could I keep paying the mortgage on this drafty little house with a long list of needed repairs, including a new roof? On just my salary, it felt impossible. But I had been doing it. Neil’s employment was erratic and even when he earned a paycheck he supported his drug habit before us.

I always associated Social Security with retirement so was surprised I would receive a monthly check for Molly based on the few years Neil worked in the US. Documents in hand, I drove to a nondescript building across from the courthouse and took the elevator up to the Social Security offices. A woman behind a thick plastic window buzzed me in and directed me to a skinny man who looked like he’d been there for a century. His desk was piled with files. He nodded and then began to drone out what documents I should hand to him.

“Social Security card.”

He sounded as if he were a surgeon asking for a scalpel. I shuffled through the papers in my manila envelope and handed it to him.

“Driver’s License.”

“It’s expired, although I don’t suppose that matters, does it?” I said.

“Is it the most recent one?”
“Yes. His license had been suspended so he couldn’t get another.” This unnecessary detail of my troubled husband was of no interest to the man peering over out-dated, silver rimmed glasses at the page in front of him. Did I hope for some reaction from him? Why did I want to tell this guy my story? Obviously, he wasn’t interested.

Watching the back of his oily head I was grateful he wasn’t looking at me as I my eyes filled with tears.

“Passport.”

I handed over the slim maroon UK passport stamped with dates that triggered flashes of wandered streets, savored meals and us holding each other tight in a world that felt ours.

“Is there a Green Card?”

His Green Card – the cause of so much frustration while waiting for permission to work. Was that when he started up with cocaine again?

“Will I get these back?” I asked.

“Yes. I just need to make copies.”

A cliché civil servant, the man did his job without looking at me. No word of condolence, not even the refrain I heard so many times during the past two weeks, “I’m sorry for your loss” or some platitude to make this all less cold and official. Maybe some gallows humor even a little sarcasm would be welcome. He took Neil’s documents off to the copy machine. I tried to suppress a sob, crumpling the yellow envelope. Returning, he read from his computer.

“You will get $565 a month for your daughter. Are you working?”

“Yes.”

“If you lose your job or for any reason are not working anymore, you will get $967 a month,” he said without looking up from his paper. “A check will be mailed out the week of the deceased’s birthday each month so you should expect your first month check around the 10th of next month. And there is a one time death payment of $250 mailed out to you within the next two months.”

“What do I do with that?”

“It’s up to you.”

“Do you need anything else from me?”

I was anxious to get out of there. When the dented metal door to the elevator closed with a groan, the tears I’d been swallowing spilled down my face. How pitifully our lives are measured – by this handful of documents now back in the crumpled yellow envelope – a packet of government-issued laminated plastic cards as proof of our lives and then our death. But, I could finally count on monthly support from Neil just when I thought he had left us only his debt.

Lucy reported from England that the family held a funeral and cremation. For Molly’s sake I decided we should hold a memorial service. I had long ago rejected the religion of my childhood and anyway, it was not Neil’s. The only church I had connected with was a nearby Unitarian Church. Molly learned about many religions and I appreciated that no guilt was being doled out from the altar while I sat for a quiet hour in the lovely glass building surrounded by trees. Sometimes Neil, trying to be the family man, would join us. We both liked the minister and it felt uncanny how often his straightforward, mostly secular sermon was exactly what we needed to hear. When this happened we left affected and for a few hours I allowed myself to hope something profound had shifted for Neil, that he heard and felt the same thing as me and that a shared insight might be the miracle to turn our lives around. I called the minister to discuss a memorial service.

Frank’s shock of white hair and full beard, rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes made him a natural for the Santa outfit he donned each Christmas. It was this comforting face that greeted me as I entered his office. The walls of his office were glass and the surrounding trees seemed part of the room. I sat on a comfortable couch full of pillows across from the minister who listened quietly as I told him about Neil’s suicide. When I finished he let out a sigh and said, “Well, that was a huge ‘fuck you’ he gave you, wasn’t it? He gave you the ultimate finger.”

I looked back at him and burst out crying.

Frank understood and targeted my anger and made it seem okay to feel that fury.

“I’m sure you know Shakespeare’s Hamlet soliloquy: ‘to be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?’ – I think it speaks volumes.”

“Yes, Neil loved it too – he knew it by heart. Hamlet was the very last film he worked on before leaving the movie business. This should definitely be part of the service.”

We would not honey coat the story. While celebrating Neil as friend, father and husband, I would not shy away from nor be cowed by the stigma of his disease or violent death. Acknowledging the damage he wrought in his addiction and death seemed to dissipate some of my bone-aching anger and pain. As Frank prodded me gently, memories of the goodness of Neil also returned. Neil was an addict who did a terrible thing in killing himself, but he was a good – not terrible man. Planning the ceremony led me beyond memories of lies and the chaos of living with addiction and beyond the image of his horrific last act.

 

The evening of the service Molly and I waited in a side room watching our friends and neighbors enter the church. As the principal and assistant principal of her school walked up the steps, followed by a few classmates Molly danced around the room, thrilled they were there for her. Neighbors came and people from my work, old friends – a steady stream soon filled the boat-shaped building. My heart felt full watching the parade of people who cared about us, who had stood behind me through the joys and struggles of the past 10 years. There were couples from the joint Al-Anon and AA meeting Neil and I went to, old friends with their spouses and children. A few of Neil’s past work-mates came, but mostly his friends were from AA. They were better at forgiving his transgressions or maybe knew better than to lend him money or believe his promises so never felt burnt by him. Molly and I followed the minister up the center aisle to the front row. The massive windows were open and an occasional breeze filled the space with the sound of rustling leaves from the surrounding forest.

The minister recited the Hamlet soliloquy, poetically addressing suicide head-on rather than letting it dangle with the terrible weight of the unspoken. He then invited Molly to light a candle on a small altar with Neil’s picture on it. Molly’s new shoes with a bit of a heel, clip-clopped up the few steps to the stage. She carefully used a long stick to take the flame from one candle to light the votive in front of her father’s photo. She’d turned nine just a few days earlier. The candle flickered in front of a headshot Neil had taken when we first arrived in the US when he thought he might try and get back into the movie business. His face fills the frame, full and healthy, eyes looking straight at the camera, smiling.

Molly and I sifted through hundreds of photographs taken over the years to make the collages in the church foyer, laughing as we glued pictures of Neil wearing Molly’s tutu and in a New York café with a beard of cappuccino foam, capturing the man constantly putting on a show. Craving attention, requiring the spotlight, yet never revealing his self. What effort this must have taken, so impossible to sustain. I glanced at his actor’s photo.

Then it was my turn. I stepped up to the podium and with sweaty palms, placed two sheets of paper in front of me and looked up. I knew these faces, close to a hundred friends who filled the room and looked back at me. Many knew of the struggles of my home because I had vented, wept and worried to them over the years. Others knew Neil as the character who made them laugh and greeted them warmly in the neighborhood and little else. How could they know?

“I’m overwhelmed to see everyone here. Thank you for coming.” Taking a deep breath, I began, periodically looking up from my paper at the sea of friendly faces.

I talked about how Neil loved to have people around the house. He was a generous host and put out a great spread, taking pride in preparing plates of food as beautiful as they were delicious. And no one ever came to our house without getting offered a cup of tea.

“I already miss his cups of tea…”

I choked up, remembering his last words to me. Struggling to regain my composure, I continued, my voice breaking only a little, “… that he made throughout the day, they were a reason to just stop and sit together.” I stopped for a moment to swallow my tears.

“Neil will be missed in the neighborhood. Walking Tetley, he always shouted out greetings to neighbors, waving to people as if he were mayor. Neil was so friendly, warm, fun and exciting and made quickly made any community in the world, his own.”

I described meeting Neil in February of 1993 in Sarajevo and how he transformed my bleak life there and all the good things he did as a humanitarian aid worker in a war zone. In some ways, they were his best days. Perhaps only war was big and hideous enough to distract him from his inner demons. In Bosnia, he felt needed. He conjured hilarity even as shells thundered around us, yet he recognized danger and was adept at getting out of dicey situations – talking his way through checkpoints manned by drunken soldiers, befriending a few of the bandits along the way. Neil saved lives – yanking people out of sniper fire into his car or smuggling whatever ethnic type was on the out, into a safe-zone. And he kept at it when we moved to Connecticut. As Molly and I sorted through photographs, we found an ‘Unsung Hero’ certificate awarded to Neil by the local Red Cross for pulling a woman out of a burning car on I-95. He was on his way to work and for once had a good excuse for being late because, of course he stopped. His instinct was to go towards trouble instead of away, to see if anyone needed saving. He joked how it was his best excuse ever for being late and was sure to bring the police report as proof.

“But he couldn’t save himself,” Molly had wisely said as she sat on my bed and looked at the snapshot she held in her hand of her handsome father.

“Neil hated the disease that haunted him. He would hate me mentioning it even now. He wanted to keep it secret from everyone, including me and even, I think, from his self. His dark secret, this demon of drug addiction, ultimately killed him. So I feel compelled to name it. Many of us were hurt by his habit and are still baffled by it – and by his death.”

I thanked everyone for coming, and for the love and support during the month that had just past and through the years. And I thanked Neil for the laughter and for the most unbelievable joy in my life: Molly.

I stepped down and took my seat next to her, pulling her close. I had thought long and hard about acknowledging Neil’s addiction in this venue. Of course many here already knew – but not all – not the school principal or many of my neighbors. In the end, I decided I wanted Molly to know there was nothing for her to be ashamed of.

 

Friends gathered round and reminded me of good times, sharing anecdotes of Neil’s humor and warmth. The ceremony gave us a chance to recreate those days and recall the goodness of his life. Slowly, I could hope, the haunting, last image of my husband would be replaced by one of the man I had loved.

 

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Chapter 33

Like Molly, I carried on with my regular schedule as if by ignoring the nightmare I might vanquish it. I went to a scheduled dentist appointment eager to see if I might feel anything after days of feeling nothing. As usual, my hygienist and I chatted about our lives, our families, our kids, during moments before and after when my mouth was not open in a lockjaw position. As the chair shifted back, she paused with a breath and exhaled, “My husband lost his job.”

“Well, it could be worse. My husband killed himself this weekend.”

She dropped her dental scraper.

“I guess it’s weird that I still came to my appointment…I mean I probably shouldn’t even be out in the world yet. I don’t think it’s sunk in.”

“I’m so sorry!” she said, gathering fresh tools before scraping my teeth and digging into my gums. I didn’t even wince.

 

The State Examiner’s Office informed me they were releasing Neil’s body and would send him on to a funeral home. The mortician needed clothes. Neil, the impeccable dresser who had once changed his clothes multiple times a day and had worn two outfits for our wedding, had died in khaki shorts worn for so many days that dirt rimmed the seam of the pockets most likely with a lighter and a few cigarette stubs in the right pocket. I also needed to sign release papers so they could send the body to England as his mother and girls wanted, relinquishing my claim to their son and father without hesitation. That ball had been rolling well before his death, our bond and my commitment frayed from years of lies.

Someone from the funeral home would meet me at City Hall, a short walk from my house. The same day as the dentist, I stayed home by myself in the house for the first time since his death. It was a too-hot day, more like August than May.

 

I stood outside the closet where a week earlier I’d shoved clothing he’d left scattered all over our bedroom. I reached for the door handle. It stuck. I leaned my weight against the old wooden door until the latch popped and it opened with a wave of cologne, cigarettes, scent of Neil disappearing into the atmosphere mixed with the bitter smell of mothballs. I dragged the heavy bag out of the closet, grasped the zipper and pulled it with a ripping sound as the cheap plastic separated. On top was his beloved, faded jean jacket. I lifted it and held it to my face and inhaled. I once loved how Neil’s odor lingered on my own clothes after his embrace, evoking memories, promises. I filled my lungs and as I exhaled, a dam of anger, resentment and disappointment crumbled under the weight of my grief.

I muffled the awful sound of the strange sounds that erupted from me, into the pile of Neil’s clothes. Sobbing, I emptied the duffel, burying my face in his sweaters and jeans, cursing and aching-for, the man I loved. A red ascot, the one he wore the day we met in Bosnia, I held against my cheek, the wrinkled silk soft against my cheek. I put it to my nose and inhaled as if I might capture the thrill and sweetness of our first days together. Any hope of life with the man who wore these so handsomely, speeding through sniper fire, was gone. No more promises – never again. His promises had become mostly lies, but as long as he lived, in some distant recess of my being I still believed him and still hoped. Now I was left with this sorry suitcase of clothes. I put the tear-drenched silk with a few different ties, into a plastic bag. I zipped a white shirt and his grey suit into a garment bag.

Still weeping, I walked down to City Hall across the running track and baseball field. We walked here together on our way to see the neighborhood kids march in the parade. Now, I clutched a suit he’d bought to wear to one of his daughter’s weddings, not for his own funeral. This couldn’t be happening. I sat on a bench beneath a row of blossoming trees just beginning to drop their white petals. I held the clothes close to my chest, tears streaming down my face. A middle-aged man with dyed black hair in a shiny suit must have easily known it was me he was looking for.

“Mrs. Hamilton?” he asked.

“Yes.” It sounded strange to be called this now.

“First of all, I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” I wiped my face with the back of my hand.

“There are a few papers I need you to sign so we can release the body to your husband’s family in England.”

I signed the papers without reading them.

“And these are the clothes?” He motioned to the bag I still held to my chest.

“Yes. I also have a few ties here – so his daughters could choose. Can you send those along?” I handed him a plastic grocery bag of neckwear including the tear- drenched ascot.

“Of course.” The man took the clothing and shook my hand, his as damp as mine.

“Again, my sympathy.”

“Thank you.”

The entire transaction took less than five minutes. Empty-handed, I walked back to the house and returned to the closet. I put everything back into the duffel bag but couldn’t get the zipper to close. I pushed the bulging bag back into the closet and leaned against the door. Molly would be home from school soon and I needed to pull myself together.

 

A few days later I called the coroner’s office for the results of the tests on Neil’s body. As cause of death was obvious, a youngish sounding woman who identified herself as a medical examiner explained, they had only done a toxicology test.

“The tests showed cocaine, anti-depressants and alcohol present in his system at the time of death,” the woman read this from her report with as much warmth and sympathy as such clinical text would allow.

“Thank you.” I could not think of anything else to say so simply said goodbye and hung up the phone.

Finally I had a definitive answer to the question I had lived with for so long. Since becoming aware of Neil’s addiction, I never looked at him without searching his eyes, watching him rub his nose or suck his teeth, wondering if he was high, always wondering. He always swore he was not and I always doubted him – thinking his kiss tasted bitter, suspicious of his twitching lips. For once, I had absolute confirmation. The death certificate cites cause of death as hanging but in fact, years of snorting that fucking deadly powder is what killed Neil. I had not lied to Molly when I told her he died from drugs. Cocaine had devoured our family. I looked at the clock. Molly would be getting off the bus in a few minutes.

“Let’s go Tet, it’s time to get Molly.” I hooked Tetley to his leash and followed him out the door and down the street to meet my daughter’s school bus.

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Chapter 32

I recall the scratch of dirt beneath my knees as I knelt in the garden the day before, the air blowing through my open window as I drove to the hardware store, the smell of the pillowcase as I fell to sleep. Before details are crystalline but the minutes, the hours and days after remain a blur. Days later I sat outside in the warmth of the sun, cradling a hot cup of tea. Over and over in my mind, I replayed scenes looking for clues. His last words to me to me – did I want a cup of tea? What if I said yes to the cup of tea he offered instead of retreating into sleep? Would drinking a cup of tea have given him the will to live? Would he still be alive if I had just gotten out of bed for a damn cup of tea with him? I flung the hot cup I was drinking into the garden, the milky brew spraying the lawn before the old chipped mug landed between the tulips. I tried to picture him walking into cluttered garage in the early hours of the morning, past the lawn mower, rakes, shovels set against the wall – was he weeping? And when he died – and I hope to God that was quick – where did he go, this life that was ‘Neil’ – his essence slipping away over years until this terrible, final exit?

Molly might have found him and for that, I hated him. He must have thought of that possibility too and then did it anyway? Was his intention so cruel? This still triggers my fury. Molly was introduced to grief too soon – but how much worse would it have been were she to have been the one to find him.

I searched my memory for strange particulars: where was Tetley during the moments when I found Neil? I had been on my way to take him for his morning walk. Was I still holding onto his leash when I went to Neil’s body? I couldn’t place him there, so maybe he had retreated back into the house. For some reason, I wanted every detail about that hideous morning and it bugged me I could not remember Tetley. It seemed imperative I string together the morbid details even as I wanted to forget it all. I threw out the wicker chair and the clippers I’d used to cut Neil down with. The remnant of rope was still wound tightly around the beam for a few days. I must have asked someone to cut it off. Who did that? Or did I do it myself? Years later, this is a clouded memory – although I know the wood is forever imprinted by the twist of rope, to anybody else, looking like a slip of the saw at the lumberyard.

That morning I sat like an awkward guest perched on the edge of my couch. Chris had left Molly with her husband and kids to sit beside me. She held my hand. I’d never held my friend’s hand, how much smaller and softer hers was. The police waited in the garage with Neil’s body for the coroner to arrive, occasionally coming in the house to check on me. Neil was left slouched in the chair, now draped in a white sheet. One of the officers told me with barely masked outrage, that he had a daughter Molly’s age could not understand how a father would do such a thing. Molly. She was still across the street. What was she thinking? I needed to talk to her.

“What do I do? I need to tell Molly. How do I tell her?”

“I don’t know but you have to tell her something. She’s got to be wondering what’s happening. Come, I’ll go with you.” Chris stood up, drawing me with her.

“Goddamn him!” One of Neil’s scuffed shoes was poking out beneath the couch. I kicked it out of sight.

We walked down the driveway together, not turning our heads, neither of us looking back at the garage. We sidestepped the broken wine bottle.

“I have to sweep this up.” I said, pausing to push the larger pieces over to the side of the road, resisting the urge to pick up the UNPROFOR label.

Had he been thinking of our days together in Bosnia before he tied the noose? Did he remember how we held each other in his bed at the Holiday Inn through dark nights of heavy shelling? I felt so confident in this man and our love then, never imagining the enemy lurking within. That my protector would one day, ravaged by addiction, destroy the dreams conjured during those dark nights in Sarajevo. I threw the largest shards to the side of the road.

Molly sat on Chris’s couch next to Gary, her husband and their two kids, watching a movie. They looked so normal. I hated to disturb the scene.

“Molly, honey…” I called, motioning for her to come with me downstairs to the family room. Her eyes seemed focused on something distant as if to avoid looking at me. Her little back straight, she walked ahead of me down the stairs as if ready to receive a punishment. I wanted to hold her close and tell her everything was fine. It wasn’t. I sat next to her on the sofa in my neighbor’s basement, took a deep breath and blurted it out:

“Daddy’s dead, Molly.”

“You didn’t have to say it like that!” Molly said, looking at me as if I said something gauche. I had.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know how else to say it.”

Molly’s expression didn’t change from a mask of stunned control.

“Can I see him? I’d like to see him,” she said.

“But… he’s gone. I mean, his body is there but he isn’t, honey, not really. I don’t think it would be a good thing for you to see him this way. I don’t think Daddy would want you to see him like this.”

I thought of his sheet-covered body growing colder in the garage.

“How? How did he die?” she asked, still no tears, matter-of-fact.

“Drugs. He took too many drugs.”

It just came out that way – and it wasn’t a lie. Cocaine did kill him. Slowly but surely, the drug wreaked havoc on his body and brain. The noose around Neil’s neck flashed into my head, his feet off the ground — hanging. The terrible, gruesome image is forever branded into my mind. I could not share that with my eight-year old girl. Someday, yes, she will want to know and I will tell her. Not now.

“I need to get back to the house honey. Please stay here and I’ll come get you later, okay? I love you.”

I leaned forward to embrace her and she drew away from me. I understood – I didn’t know what to feel either and my touch might topple her precarious emotional balancing act.

Chris and I hurried back to the house pushing through the already bent branches in the hedge rather than walk up the drive and see his body, covered with a sheet but still in the garage.

 

I needed to call England to tell Neil’s family. Except for Lucy, I did not have regular contact with any of them. Before the past six months Neil had spent in his hometown, he only spoke with his mother every few months. Years sometimes passed with him not speaking to his siblings. I knew Neil’s mother never liked me – the ‘Yankee’ wife, and now she would hate me forever, cutting my head out of photographs. I called the brother’s pub and was relieved when he picked up.

“Neil’s dead, Kim. He killed himself this morning.” I blurted.

“Oh my god! Oh no, no!” he sounded winded.

“Please, can you tell every one there? I’ll talk to the girls later but I’d be grateful if you’d call them for me,” I said.

“Yes, yes. Oh my God! Take care of yourself, Tricia. And Molly.”

I was grateful he did not ask me more questions, probably too shocked by the news himself.

Other neighborhood friends appeared and my sister had driven up from the city in record time. We barely talked, drinking tea together as we stared at the living room floor. It was almost noon by the time the car from the State Examiner’s office arrived to take Neil’s body, now zipped into a bag, away in the long hearse-like vehicle. Unnatural deaths like his require investigation, possible an autopsy. I didn’t care since I had no idea what one otherwise did with a body. I watched from the porch. Just as Neil had threatened a few days ago, he left the house in a box. He was gone.

I felt a strange calm. For the next twenty-four hours a stream of friends passed through our little house. Molly played card games with my sister, happy for the company. She insisted on going to school on Monday. I understood her longing for the comfort of daily routine, the desire to pretend nothing had happened, that everything was normal. But when was anything normal in her life? What was normal about doing drug pick-ups with your father? Yet her father was the fun one – ready to make her laugh, tease and tickle, cuddle her. In her confusing soup of emotions, Molly told me she also felt relief. With her father’s death came an end to the chaos, the sense of never being sure when the earth beneath her feet would give way.

In the days following Neil’s death, I took spring-cleaning to another level, opening every window, stripping the beds and washing all the linens in the hottest water. I gathered scruffy pants, boxer shorts, and t-shirts and other clothing still scattered around our bedroom and stuffed them into a huge duffel bag and dragged it into a closet we rarely used. I lit incense in every room and imagined that the smoke disappearing through the windows was the fog in my head clearing away.

 

Years ago Neil and I had a macabre conversation about how and where we wanted our bodies to be disposed of when we died and he told me then, he wanted to be sent ‘home’. Home. Not even this house we loved so much was ever Neil’s home. He never found ‘home’ only the trappings of house, family of a wife and daughter, none of it ever sufficient. What was he searching for or fleeing from his entire life? It was right he be sent back to where it all began. Maybe his family in England, who asked his body be sent to them, could find solace in some closing ritual of burial or cremation. For me, it would not be enough.

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Chapter 31

I woke to sunlight moving across my bed like a twisting kaleidoscope. Scents of spring air filled the room and for a moment, I felt at peace before that familiar pinch of worry resumed cramping my heart. Every day this week, I’d woken up tense and ready for battle. But this morning I remembered Neil’s decision to go back to England and felt a rare calm. Tetley curled up beside me, nudged me with his nose, stretched and leapt off the bed then scratched the side of the mattress.

“Okay buddy, I’m getting up.”

Molly’s bed was an empty jumble of sheets; she must have fallen asleep in my bedroom while watching the movie. I pulled on a pair of jeans and cautiously leaned in the doorway, expecting to see Neil and her asleep. Only Molly was sprawled in the middle of the huge bed. I tiptoed in and kissed her damp cheek. Descending the stairs, I thought I’d find him passed out on the couch – but it was empty. Strange. Where could he be? Already awake? Unlikely. I walked towards the kitchen to get the dog’s leash and on the floor, lit by a slant of morning light was a sheet of paper. I picked it up. I knew what it was. I could have had a collection of all the scrawled notes he’d left for me over the years. The waking peace vanished, my stomach flooded with the usual mix of dread and anger, the beats of my heart quickened to double-time. Judging from past experience, he’d be gone for a few hours and when he returned, last night’s decision about leaving would be forgotten and he’d be raring for a fight. Sighing, I put the paper high up on a bookshelf where Molly would not see it.

“Come on, let’s take you for a walk,” I said to Tetley, clicking the leash onto his collar as I stepped into the screened-in breezeway between the house and garage. I looked out at the chairs where we drank our tea yesterday and half-expected to see Neil smoking a cigarette, but the chairs were empty. The breezeway was at the back of the house and while filled with sun in the afternoon, now the light was dim, but the door was open to the garage and I could see a stream of light with dust particles glinting dreamlike through the air. How beautiful, I thought glancing in as I walked by to the door. And stopped. From a rafter catty-corner from where I stood was Neil. He wore only a pair of khaki shorts his long body stretched tight, eyes and mouth closed, a noose around his neck. Hanging.

“Fuck! Fuck!” Cursing, I went to him and tried to lift his body to relieve the strain, to support his weight. “You fucking asshole! What the fuck did you do? I don’t believe you did this, Neil!” I needed to somehow loosen the rope pulled tight into his flesh. Maybe he was still alive. I pulled over a white wicker chair that lay on its side – the one he must have stood on – and tried to get the weight of his body on it to reduce the pull. His legs were heavy and I could not maneuver them. Was he still alive? I needed to get help but did not want to release his weight as if my holding him up might really be easing the choke on his neck. But what else could I do? I released him and ran across the lawn to my closest neighbor’s house. I banged on the door, calling her name. No answer. I ran across the street to where the town’s fire chief lived. Banging on the door and screaming, “Help me! Please help me!” still, no one answered. I ran back to my house and grabbed the phone to call the police dialing 911 then quickly hung up. Molly! I needed to get her out of the house first. She couldn’t see the hideous thing her father did.

The phone in my hand rang as I sprinted up the stairs. It was the police.

“What’s the emergency? Someone called 911 from your location.” a woman spoke to me from the phone still in my hand.

“Yes… I think my husband killed himself in the garage,” (did I just say that aloud? Was this happening?) “I need to get my daughter out of the house now.” I disconnected and went into the bedroom where just moments before I’d peeked in on my sleeping daughter.

“Molly, you need to get up immediately and come with me. Come on honey, get up right now please.”

She lifted her head from the pillow, her eyes glazed with sleep. She took my hand and climbed off the bed. Squeezing her fingers tightly in my own, I led her downstairs and out the front door, across the lawn, stepping over the deflated ball she had played with yesterday. Clutching Molly’s damp hand, I pushed through the scratchy branches of the overgrown privet hedge before the police arrived.

“Is Daddy okay?” she asked as we ran to our neighbors on that warm May morning.

“I don’t know, honey, I don’t know.”

I knew.

A decade earlier, amidst the war in Bosnia, a dashing Englishman promised me a life of romance and children. Leaving the Balkans to raise our family, I imagined us growing old together. Instead, our little house in Connecticut became a different kind of battleground. Glass littered the street. I recognized the UNPROFOR label from a bottle of wine Neil and I had saved from our days in peacekeeping. It must have been like vinegar. Neil obviously drank it in the night and smashed the bottle out here. Molly was barefoot.

“Be careful of the glass,” I said, navigating her away from the shards.

We crossed the street to my neighbor Chris’s house and I banged on the door. It seemed forever until my friend came to the door, still half-asleep.

“Please, can Molly stay here? I need to go back to the house.”

Did I still think I could save him?

Chris retrieved Molly’s hand from mine and drew her into the house without a word. She knew not to ask any questions. I ran back up the hill and into the garage, grabbing the pruning clipper I’d cut back the roses with the other day. Positioning the white wicker chair just below Neil, I climbed onto a stool and clipped the thin rope, guiding his body into the chair. My husband slumped in the chair as I tried to loosen the noose from his neck. Could he still be alive? I heard the slip of gravel as cars sped into the driveway. I pushed the automatic garage door button and ran outside. A police car and ambulance were in the drive. The officer and paramedic rushed passed me to Neil. I stood by the ambulance holding my head, not looking at what they were doing. What if he was alive? What condition would he be in? What if they revived him to live as a vegetable? Within seconds, the police officer, a short black man walked towards me.

“I’m sorry, he’s gone.”

I crouched down against the bumper of the police car as if I’d been punched in the stomach, releasing a strange moan that turned into an ugly sob. It was over.

 

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Chapter 30

The last few nights of April were rainy but by sunrise the skies cleared and the air smelled of new life. I knelt in the dirt pulling out handfuls of green leaves crowding the flowerbed on the east side of the house. Soon bleeding hearts would droop their split-valentines in this patch, followed by fragrant lilies in the hot summer. Maybe this year the woodchuck would spare the black eyed susans. I loved how they lasted the summer. Sometimes I’d still find blooms up to the first frost. Spring always filled me with optimism and in the garden, as stressed-out as I was, my hope for the future was as tenacious as the roots of the plants I was yanking out. I sat back on my heels, filling my lungs with the scent of the damp earth. Tetley stretched out on his side next to me, savoring the day’s last hours of warm sun. I ran my fingers through his scruffy fur.

A cartoon soundtrack drifted out through the open window. I pictured Molly sitting on the edge of the couch. Across the yard Neil inhaled cigarette smoke. I dug into the earth feeling his eyes watching me – haunted eyes, almost black, sunk deep beneath his over-grown eyebrows. Always a handsome man, he’d navigated the world for most of his life using good looks and charm – now gone – at least in my eyes.

I glanced over at him. His long legs stretched straight, one arm draped across the back of the empty chair beside him, cigarette dangling between his chewed fingers. He smirked back at me. He probably thought I was going about weeding all wrong. Neil always claimed to do things better than me. On this trip, as soon as his mood shifted from meek to mean, one of his first biting comments was noting ‘the state of the house’ as if things had deteriorated since he left. Neil made things look good fast – packing everything into closets or under beds, chairs and sofas. Of course like everything with him, he was a master of illusion. And he thought it enough. That getting the mess out of sight was actually enough, never mind it was only hidden from sight. He must be so frustrated that his smoke and mirrors no longer worked with me.

 

I checked my breathing – in deeply with my abdomen, release bad energy out, good energy in. I’d been forgetting to breathe, holding it as if to keep my life together, weaving a knot that twisted tighter and tighter in my chest. Release. I needed to let it go, not think about him watching me, about the distance that lay between us. There was nothing for me to say. What could we talk about anymore? The memories, adventures, joys and sorrows of our shared years had disappeared behind the wall of his lies and addiction. I kept digging, wrenching the roots out and tossing the plants in a pile beside me.

We fell in love with this place because of the garden. The privet hedge circling the property made it feel like a secret home tucked away in the country rather than a cape in the suburbs, a stones-throw away from I-95. Our first spring, a bank of peonies cutting across the property created a fragrant swath of delicate color until the first heavy rain when, as if they’d been butchered with a machete, they were reduced to piles of pink petals. We dug a vegetable garden and planted tomatoes and broccoli and for Molly, pumpkins. One year we planted gourds and the vines took off across the yard, climbing a tree where the strange bottle shapes hung out of reach.

I picked up the pile and as I walked past Neil to the compost heap, we looked at each other coldly. He hates me. I hate him. A familiar commercial jingle came through an open window and the screen door slammed as Molly came looking for us; or at least, for me. Molly was wary of her dad. I imagine this enraged Neil and certainly must hurt him terribly. He tried to entice her to be affectionate, calling her ‘daddy’s girl’. Almost nine, Molly always impressed me with her perceptiveness and clarity. Even at a very young age she had a remarkable ability to express her frustration about not getting what she needed from her father. Like any child, she wanted to be the center of attention – but he couldn’t give up that spot – not even to his beloved little girl.

Molly did adore him. At least there was that left in the wreckage of what was once our family. Neil called to her, “Come here poppit, come sit with your Dad.” He pulled his legs in to give her a lap to sit on and she climbed on, putting her arms around his neck. Neil drew on his cigarette and exhaled over her shoulder. I bit my tongue. Breathe. They both watched me as I returned and pulled a few more blades of green from the patch.

“Mommy works hard, doesn’t she?”

Molly didn’t answer, likely perceiving he was not actually complimenting me. As I held a fist of greens and looked at the pile, it dawned on me that this plant I’d been pulling up didn’t really look like a weed nor was it just grass; there was a funny bend to it.

“Oh, what did I do?” I said aloud as I realized I had just pulled out an entire bed of forget-me-knots.

“What’s wrong Mommy?”

“I didn’t know what I was pulling out is actually a flower – not a weed.”

Neil drew on his cigarette, looked at me smugly and as if he had known all along, exhaled a cloud of smoke and said, “I didn’t want to say anything.”

I picked up my tools leaving the last bit of greenery in a pile on the lawn.

 

Neil kept his word about drinking less and only picked fights when Molly wasn’t home. He was served with divorce papers without incident even reporting to me about the exchange as if it were pleasant. He said he thanked the sheriff as he accepted the papers and they chatted about the weather. Apparently resigned to the dissolution of our marriage, he’d now shifted his focus on angling to get the most out of a shitty situation. He knew he was legally allowed to remain in the house until the divorce went through and planned on doing just that, obviously delighting in my misery. Anyway, I knew he had no money and nowhere else to go but back to England.

One evening after ushering Molly from bath to bed, I retreated to my little alcove-room and curling up under the covers, let out a deep breath of relief. I’d made it through the evening without a scene. This would be my life until the divorce – this excruciating status quo. I needed to stay calm and develop patience. From my bed, I could see Molly already asleep, no doubt also exhausted by these emotionally fraught days, her cupid-bow mouth slightly open. Looking at her peaceful beauty, I began to relax. Although it was just after 8:00, I turned my reading lamp off to sleep. When I heard the floorboards in Molly’s room creak.

“Pssst. Tricia!” Neil stood beside Molly’s bed looking in at me, “I want to talk to you!”

I whispered back, “I’m sleeping – and so is Molly – don’t wake her! We can talk tomorrow. Please leave me alone.”

“I just want to talk to you!” he pleaded.

I threw the blankets aside and got up, following him across the small landing to what had been our room. The gigantic bed was unmade and covered with his clothes.

“Come in and sit down. I need to talk to you,” he said, motioning next to him as he sat on the edge of the bed.

“No, I don’t want to come in. I’ll stand right here. Talk to me from here,” I answered from the doorway.

“What? Now you can’t even stand to be in the same room with me?”

“What do you need to say to me? I have to work tomorrow and would like to get some sleep.”

“I spoke with a lawyer today. I want you to know that. Do you know that Molly will have to have a psychological evaluation if we put her through a fight for custody?”

I didn’t answer him. What did he imagine a psychological evaluation would entail?

“I just want to know that you are going to give me access to her. And the holidays – you’ll have to send her to me for Christmas. You know Christmas has always been important to me.”

Was he almost sounding reasonable? I felt myself soften.

“Oh, Neil, I want you in Molly’s life – a healthy you. Look, both of us had absent fathers and I don’t want that for her. As long as I am confident you are not using, I’d never keep her away from you. The onus is on you. I know your family in England will also look after her so of course I will let her go,” I added.

“Do you swear it?”

“If that’s what you need me to do, yes: I swear it. Now, I’m going to bed. We can talk more tomorrow.”

I went back to my bed and pulled the covers tight, barely breathing until I heard his footsteps down the stairs.

 

How would Neil pay for a lawyer? I doubted he had any access to money. I bet he had nothing but his ticket back to England. I’d looked through his things one day when he was out for a walk with Molly and found collection letters from an English bank and a notice of overdue rent and an eviction letter from his landlord. It took just six months for him to make a mess of things there, too. No wonder he didn’t want to go back.

I would get through these days. I had to. And Neil would need to behave himself to stay in the house. Eventually we would be divorced and I would have my life back again. For the next nine months to a year before the divorce was finalized, I’d live like this, under siege, forcing myself to keep breathing, to focus on Molly, my garden and job. Distant as it seemed, at least I now saw an end in sight.

 

When I came home from work the next day, Neil and Molly were out in the yard. I watched from the porch as the two of them kicked a soccer ball, joined by Tetley who kept desperately trying to grab hold of the too-large plastic in his tiny jaw. Molly was laughing. Neil kept glancing over at me as if to make sure his exemplary behavior was being noticed. I made two cups of tea and brought them outside. Molly chased Tetley who had managed to pierce the ball with his teeth and now ran away from her with the rapidly deflating sphere, his tail wagging madly.

“I decided I’m going back to England next week,” Neil said as he took the cup of tea and sat down in the folding chair next to me. I couldn’t believe my ears. I tried to sound matter-of-fact in answering him.

“Really? Okay. It does sound like you have more possibilities there with your brother’s pub and all,” I lied, pretending I didn’t know about the bank and eviction notices.

“You win. I can’t fight you on this. And I don’t want to make it harder on Molly,” he said.

“No, these days haven’t been great for her. Did you tell her yet?”

“Yes. She was fine. Probably looking forward to seeing the back of me as much as you are.”

“Of course not! Don’t say that! You’re her dad and she loves you.”

This reasonable side of him was so unfamiliar. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

“She’ll go to stay with you in England, I promise you. I will send her.”

Molly ran across the lawn in front of us, laughing. He chewed his nails.

“She will always be part of your life. I will make sure of that.” I wanted to end this discussion in case it turned in a less agreeable direction. “I’d like to go to the hardware store to buy some stuff for the garden. Do you mind?”

 

It was the first time since he’d been here that I felt some ease leaving him alone with Molly and I wanted to take advantage of the chance to run errands and be on my own.

“Go ahead. We’ll be here.”

It felt almost like the old days when our world appeared to be normal, all of us playing our parts brilliantly. Driving past the privet-hedge I waved at father, daughter and cute dog running across the lawn. So perfect looking, I thought bitterly. But then, as I pulled onto the highway towards Home Depot, I whooped and pumped the air in glee. Instead of the months of battles and oppression I’d anticipated, Neil would be gone in a matter of days.

It was April 30 – my fingers would be crossed until May 5 when his plane left. To no longer live saturated with anxiety and fear! I couldn’t wait. I wished him the best, that he would get his life together. But that no longer could be my concern. This year we would be married for ten years but our time was up. Almost that many years had been haunted by addiction. A decade of living together like this seemed insane to me, not an accomplishment. Why had I waited so long? Why did it take me until now to realize I was losing this battle, to realize that it wasn’t even mine to fight? I had been as high on hope, on delusions about the power of love, as Neil was on coke. I pulled into the Home Depot parking lot and went in to buy stakes for the vegetable garden.

 

By the time I returned to the house, Neil and Molly were inside watching television. Since it was Friday night, Molly would be allowed to stay up past her usual bedtime to watch a movie.

“A Bug’s Life is on, Mom!”

“Great, honey. I like that movie,” I said.

“Do you want to watch it with her?” Neil asked. “There’s an English mystery on I wouldn’t mind seeing. The two of you could watch upstairs and I’ll watch my show down here.”

“No. I’m going to read,” I answered curtly.

He was leaving in a matter of days and couldn’t sit and watch a kid-movie with his daughter?

“Okay sausage, I’ll watch your movie with you,” he said, realizing I would not give him an out.

“I’m tired so I’m going to go up to bed now and will probably conk out pretty early – so, goodnight.” I bent to kiss Molly.

“Good night” I nodded to Neil.

“Good night,” he said pleasantly.

A breeze blew through the little room, rustling the new leaves of the oak tree gently against the window screen. I’d need to get those branches trimmed this year. For the first time in weeks, I felt calm. Everything was going to be all right. I ran through the logistics of our future in my head. How would I get Molly to England? At least for a couple of years, I’d have to take her there and back. I couldn’t imagine putting her on a plane to fly over the ocean alone.

I read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. Just as I turned out the light, Neil came to the doorway and called in to me,

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

I glanced up. “No thanks. I’m going to sleep now.” I burrowed into my pillow.

“Okay.” I heard the door shut behind him.

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Chapter 29

The next day after work, I picked Molly up from her after school program. The drive home took about 3 minutes from there. I pulled in the driveway, stiffening as I caught sight of Neil in his usual spot on the front porch, cigarette in one hand and cheap beer in the other. I’d been wishing he might miraculously disappear but he was still there. He’d made it clear to me yesterday he wasn’t going anywhere. Nodding to him as I unloaded the groceries from the backseat, I slammed the car door shut and headed to the side door to delay contact as long as possible. Molly trailed after me. Neil called out. “Hello poppit! How was your day today? I missed you. Come tell me about it.”

“Hi Daddy.” Molly veered off towards the porch to greet him. Moments later I heard her squeal, “ Yech! You smell like beer!”

I couldn’t make out Neil’s response but took a deep breath. I need to keep my cool and just get through each day, however days, weeks or months that may be. I put the bag of groceries on the table. The kitchen smelled like bleach. The black-and-white tiles of the kitchen floor were spotless, the sink empty and dishes put away. Obviously, he was making a gesture of apology for his horrible behavior. It meant nothing to me – particularly when I opened the refrigerator and saw Neil’s only daily contribution to the refrigerator since he arrived: a 12 pack of beer, always gone by the end of day. I’d bought eggs, cheddar cheese and a head of lettuce. I’d make an omelet and salad. I’d also picked up some first-of-the-season, luscious-looking strawberries for dessert. I closed the kitchen door and concentrated on cooking, grateful he was leaving me alone.

 

“Dinner is ready, Molls. Turn off the TV and let’s eat.” Mustering an effort to be cordial I called out to Neil still sitting on the porch, “Do you want to join us? I’ve made enough.”

“No. I’m fine. Thank you,” he glared at me through the screen door.

Molly and I sat at the kitchen table. The evening sun poured through the windows and birds were singing and I registered the beauty as if from the end of a long tunnel while chewing my food, oblivious to tastes and textures. I couldn’t remember when I last had an appetite. Like everything else in my life, eating had become a function of survival. Molly wolfed down her dinner in a hurry to escape back to the television and maybe from me. I washed the strawberries and delivered them to her with a kiss, pushing her soft brown hair off her brow.

The screen door slamming hard behind him, Neil came into the kitchen. “What?” he said with a glare at me as I watched him yank a beer from the refrigerator and stomp into the living room. Scrubbing coagulated drips of cheese and egg from our plates, I heard him speaking loudly like intended for me to hear whatever he was saying to Molly. I turned off the faucet and put the last plate in the dish rack to dry, soothed by this normal evening ritual. I’d nixed Neil’s bid for a dishwasher years earlier, not wanting the expense nor minding the chore. Drying my hands with a dishtowel I started as Neil joined me by the sink, sputtering curses and pointing at a dripping red splotch on his yellow, button down shirt.

“Look what your daughter did!” he yelled.

I darted into the living room. Molly sat where I’d left her moments earlier but now wide-eyed with a strawberry oozing between her fingers, red juice dripping down her arm. Neil stormed past us with beer in hand, and taking the stairs by two, screamed over the banister,

“You stay with your mother! You just stay with her then! She has you so fucking brainwashed! Just fucking stay with her! You’ll never see me again – either of you!”

He banged the door so hard it shook the house and the bed groaned followed by horrendous sobbing.

“Honey, what happened?” I sat next to Molly, pulling her close wiping the juice off her arm with the dishtowel.

“He kept saying really mean things about you and I told him to stop and he wouldn’t so I smooshed the strawberry into his shirt and he just went crazy. I didn’t mean to do it.”

Molly began crying quietly, her shoulders shaking under my arm.

“Oh, Moll! It’s okay, honey. He’s just reacting, he doesn’t mean it – you know that.”

Her tears fell faster than I could wipe them but unlike her father, she wept silently, the sound of her father’s sobs both frightening and pathetic. I turned up the television and pulled her tightly against my thumping heart. My mind raced. Now he was targeting his anger at Molly. I stared at the television, seeing nothing, willing him to stop making the awful noise. Finally, it was quiet and we breathed easier until the bedroom door opened. Tetley jumped up onto the couch and pressed his little body against my leg. Neil came downstairs and without a glance in our direction, retrieved the remaining beer from the refrigerator returning to the bedroom, slamming the door behind him. Molly and I sat frozen, staring at the television and seeing nothing.

“Mommy, I’m scared.”

“Me too,” I let slip in a whisper and then quickly added, “We’re okay honey, don’t worry. He’s drinking too much but he’ll probably just go to sleep now.”

I tried to sound convincing although I didn’t believe this myself. The craziness couldn’t go on: I needed a plan. I would talk to my lawyer tomorrow and get things moving to finally end this. Molly and I sat up later than usual watching inane programs before slipping up to bed, praying Neil would leave us alone. I shut Molly’s bedroom door, climbed between her Winnie the Pooh sheets, pulled her warm body next to mine and tried to sleep.

The next morning, I woke nauseous from the memory of last night. Peering cautiously into our bedroom through the open door, I looked at Neil’s back where he lay in the bed. I could tell from his breathing he was sleeping. Still, I tiptoed to the bathroom. As Molly got ready for school, we were careful to whisper. As I was packing her lunch, Molly came in to the kitchen crying, clutching Neil’s yellow shirt from yesterday. She must have crept into the bedroom to get it.

“Mommy, can you get this out? Can you wash it? Will it stain?” She held the shirt out towards me. I took it from her, wanting to shred it, to go upstairs and whip Neil with it, to stomp on it with dirty shoes. I hated him.

“Of course I can, honey! Please don’t even think about that stupid shirt. Daddy was drunk last night – I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt you and will understand today that you were just expressing your frustration with him. He was being unreasonable – not you. I’ll wash it and it will be just like new.”

I kissed the top of her head, her hair smelled faintly of shampoo.

“Now go get dressed so you won’t be late for school.”

The shirt in my fist, I went down to the basement cursing him as I sprayed stain remover product over the red-smear. The asshole!

“Are you almost ready? It’s time to go.”

I called from the kitchen, anxious to get Molly out of the house to the safety and sanity of school. She appeared in the doorway already wearing her backpack. I quickly ran upstairs to brush my teeth.

“Tricia! Come here! I want to tell you something,” Neil called to me from the bedroom.

I bristled at his orders but stepped towards the doorway and glared in at him, stretched out on his side of the bed, beer cans across the floor.

“What?” I barked.

“When you come home today, I won’t be here. I’ll be out of your life forever so you’ll get what you want: to never see me again and neither will Molly. You’ll have to find a way to explain it to her. I know that’s what you want.”

I glared in at him, not even stepping over the threshold. He barely lifted his head from the pillow. I hurried down the stairs, took Molly’s hand and slammed the door behind us. I hoped it was true. I wanted him to be gone from the house – gone forever. But I doubted he’d go anywhere. Over the years he often threatened to disappear, sometimes leaving dramatic suicide notes behind. Once he even included his wedding ring, and driver license in an envelope. That time, when he arrived back home in time for dinner, he asked for the envelope back. Yes – I wanted him gone. How could I not? I felt terrorized in my own home.

 

After work, I picked Molly up from the after school program and had her wait in the car while I went in the house, moving quietly, dreading what I might find. Neil lay in bed where I left him this morning, his back to me but I could see his body rise and fall – that was enough for me. Slipping into Molly’s room, I picked out a change of clothes and pajamas for both of us, and left. I would not risk another scene like last night.

I drove over to my neighbor Amina’s house; we had become good friends over the last year and I knew I could count on her. Her house was only a block away, but out of sight of ours. As long as Neil didn’t walk in this direction, he wouldn’t see my car in their driveway. Molly happily disappeared upstairs with Amina’s daughter to play video games and I sank into a chair in the kitchen. Everything in this house was spotless and neat. I marveled how other people’s lives were so well organized and maintained. I longed for such order. My world overwhelmed me – the house, the yard, my day-to-day existence. How could I ever achieve this kind of order in my life? I felt like I was swirling out of control, grasping on to each rung of a ladder in a dark tunnel determined I would make it to the light.

 

On Amina’s pullout couch bed in the family room of their split-leveled house, I slept better than I had in ages. I felt safe. When I woke the next morning, it took a few minutes to remember my bleak reality and for the iron clamp on my stomach to take hold again. Molly burst into the room, I imagine, happy for this midweek sleepover with her friend and glimpse at normality.

“Mommy! I need my violin today!”

Shit! I would have to go to the house. Well, I couldn’t avoid it forever and I needed to say some things to Neil – to set some boundaries once and for all.

“I’ll go get it now. You stay here and eat some breakfast. I’m sure Amina has some delicious things in that big refrigerator.”

I threw my clothes on and Amina saw me to the door.

“Do you want me to come with you?” She was still in her pajamas.

“No, no. Really, I’m fine. I’ll be 10 minutes at the most. I’m not going to talk to him.”

“If you don’t come back, we’ll come looking for you.” I knew she was only partially joking and gave a nervous laugh.

“Thanks. I hope that won’t be necessary.”

Our house was only three minutes walk away but I wanted to be able to get in and out quickly so I drove. As I pulled into the driveway, Neil immediately came out on the front porch. His white hair stood on end and his eyes, equally wild.

“What are you playing at? Where have you been? I’ve been sick with worry. I called your sister – she gave me an earful. I called everywhere – you’re lucky I didn’t call the police – taking my daughter out of the house without my permission,” he said.

“Don’t be ridiculous. You know you don’t want me to explain to the police why we had to flee our own house. Listen Neil: I’m not coming back here with Molly unless you stop drinking and stop screaming at us and making crazy threats. I’ve had it. Do you understand that? I’ve had it!”

I stood on the bottom step of the front porch. He sat with his back to me as I spoke and then turned to me, his face distraught – a desperate look that in the past would have me forgiving him, pretending to believe all was better. Such forgiveness for him was no longer possible. This morning, I felt only fury.

“Molly and I don’t feel safe with you anymore. That’s why we stayed away yesterday. You threatened to kill yourself and when I came home, you were still in bed at five o’clock. What was I supposed to do, wait for the next crazy outburst? I’m not going to do that. No more. No more drinking. I know you think it’s acceptable because it’s not coke and it’s legal, but that doesn’t fly.”

“Did Molly say that? Did Molly say that she didn’t feel safe?” He asked as if he didn’t believe me, as if he had no idea how terrifying he’d become.

“Yes, she did. Of course she’s afraid of you – you’re scary! That whole strawberry thing was awful. You can’t treat her like that! My god – she’s your daughter! Stop using her as your emotional batting ram against me!”

“I don’t want her to be afraid of me. I won’t drink, I promise. And I’ll try not to scream at you. Please, please bring my baby home,” he pleaded.

“I mean it – we’ll be right out of here the minute you get crazy on us.”

“I get it. Please just bring her home.”

I went inside. The atmosphere in the house felt stale, the light dismal – my beloved home felt no longer mine. I grabbed Molly’s violin and hurried out, calling behind me,

“All right. We’ll be back later – but if I so much as smell a beer around here…”

“You won’t! I’ll call Sal and ask him to bring me to a meeting.”

We’d met Sal at an AA-AlAnon couples meeting we had been to a few times. When Sal took Neil under his wing I felt so hopeful, sure this new friend could lead Neil to his own recovery. Now my only hope was that he’d get Neil out of the house for a few hours.

I put the car into reverse and backed out to the road, grinding my teeth. Molly wasn’t the only one living with fear. I was terrified of drugs, drunkenness, violence, verbal abuse, and most of all, that something might happen to Molly. I feared Neil. How had the man I thought I would be my mate for life turn into a threat? We were so in love and full of plans for our life of adventure before it was all destroyed by white powder. I couldn’t beat it – this drug was more powerful than my love, than Molly’s sweet devotion. I gave up. It was just the two of us now – Molly and me. We were out of Neil’s sinking boat and swimming furiously to shore. I didn’t know how far that was but I was going to make damn sure that Molly and I would not drown.

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Chapter 28

We called the little alcove off of Molly’s room the private room. The big oak’s branches scratched at the window making it feel like we were in a tree house. I anticipated Neil would blow up when I directed him away from our bedroom to this tiny room with only space enough for a bed pressed against the wall. He made no complaint, perching on the edge of the mattress like a punished child as I turned away mumbling something about checking the laundry and left.

For hours he barely spoke, smoking on the porch, lighting cigarette after cigarette, flicking the butts into the hedge as he watched Molly spin on her rope swing. It seemed to calm him, watching her twirl around and around, her body parallel to the ground, the rope wrapped around her hands, spinning until she was dizzy. I busied myself cooking and cleaning frenetically. Tetley followed me closely as I moved through the house, as if he too was avoiding Neil.

Molly came into the kitchen, her brow furrowed. “What’s wrong with Daddy?”

“I think he’s just really nervous. It’s hard for him to be here after everything that’s happened. He’ll be ok.”

But I wasn’t sure. After an awkward dinner together, father and daughter retreated to watch television and I disappeared upstairs for an early bedtime, pulling what used to be our bedroom door, firmly behind me.

The next day he still acted like an awkward guest, as if he knew he was disturbing us. I made chatty conversation, steering the discussion to what we would have for lunch or an errand I needed to run. Again, Molly twirled on her swing and Neil sat on the porch and smoked. I stayed outside for most of the day, preparing the flower and vegetable beds for planting. Neil found me by the side of the house.

“I’d like to buy some flowers for you to plant. I remember you said that you couldn’t afford to buy flowers last year because of my habit and, well, I’d like to make it up to you.” he chewed his lips between sentences and looked over my head as he spoke.

“Oh. Well, that’s nice – but you don’t have to do that.” I pulled on a stubborn dandelion root.

“I’d like to. There is so much you didn’t get to do because of my addiction and I’m sorry. At least I can do this for you.”

“Okay… thanks then.”

I agreed he owed me. Why did I feel irritated by this offer? The gesture was only a drop in the bucket and typical of him: he wasn’t offering to do something I really needed like paying the oil bill – there would be no visibility, no proof of his contribution. If we planted flowers they may only last a season but that garden would be ‘his’. Still, I accepted. We drove to the garden center and bought flats of petunias and impatiens. I left him and Molly to plant them together, creating a wave of purple, pink and red beside the house. Their banter and laughter drifted through the garden. My breathing relaxed and for a moment, I felt guilty. Why did I have to be such a bitch?

On day number three I went to work leaving Molly with whispered instructions to call me for any reason whatsoever. But Neil seemed better – he wasn’t shaking as much and continued to be polite. Occasionally he made comments that intimated at a future together; I immediately changed the subject. The lawyer was awaiting my cue to serve the divorce papers. I didn’t want Molly around for any eruptions. Spring break ended next week and she would be out of the house. Neil’s ticket back to England was for May 5 – Cinquo de Mayo – the Mexican holiday of independence and I hoped, my own day of freedom.

 

I wanted to give him a heads up about what to expect so he didn’t lose it completely when he was served. But he still seemed too fragile and delusional that a life together was possible. There never seemed a good time and I was getting nervous but also more resolute. I could not live on tenterhooks any more, sharing a life with someone who lived by deception. It was another sunny day and I stood barefoot in the warm grass, using the hose to water the flowers Neil and Molly had planted. Molly was inside watching television. Neil came and stood beside me.

“I know I was a real prat for these past years. I promise on Molly’s life, I am getting better and I will be the man you married again.”

“Good. I’m glad you’re committed to your recovery.” I did not turn my gaze from the water pulsing out of the hose.

“All I want is to be back here with you both.”

“We’ve talked about this. You need to get yourself together first. For you and for Molly.”

“What about you? Don’t you want this anymore?” his voice cracked.

“Neil… I don’t want to do this anymore.” I gestured with the hose and the water sprayed wildly around the garden. “Please stop asking me that question. Honestly, I can’t… the honest answer is: I can’t do it anymore.”

 

Even as the words left my mouth, I wished I’d swallowed them. His demeanor changed in a flash, his eyes went black, filled with fury.

“What do you mean? What exactly are you saying?” He sidled up closer to me. “Are you saying you are divorcing me? You are, aren’t you? You’re fucking divorcing me aren’t you? All right then! Bring it on! Come on! Do you want to fight? I’ll fucking fight you!”

He picked up a plastic garbage can and threw it against the garage. It bounced off the asphalt and hit the side of my car. I flinched but a bizarre detachment settled over me. I looked at the can in the driveway and thought, it’s a good thing the garbage was picked up this morning otherwise I’d be cleaning up a big mess. I waited, clenching the hose as puddles formed around the now-water logged petunias. It went through my head that I needed to get away from him – but not into the house – Molly was there, hopefully oblivious. I shouldn’t get trapped inside. I remained beside the garden watching the torrent of water drowning the plants so cheerfully planted by father and daughter the day before.

“You know what? I never loved you anyway and you weren’t even any good in bed! I’ll be glad to divorce you, to be rid of you. But I’ll fucking fight you on everything. You won’t have anything left. You’ll lose the house and Molly. I’ll give you the fucking fight of your life!”

My dripping hand trembled so I was surprised at how firm and steady my voice sounded.

“Please stop screaming at me. Molly is in the house. She doesn’t need to hear this.”

“Let her hear, let her hear what a bitch her mother is. That you want to destroy her family! Let the whole neighborhood hear! I don’t fucking care!”

I kept my eyes lowered away from him but his face was so close, his spittle sprayed me as he yelled. In all our years and some terrible fights, I’d never felt Neil would lift his hand against me until now. I wasn’t sure. I stayed focused on the stream of water now pooling at my feet. Finally, he turned away, stomping in the direction of the front porch throwing the other garbage can across the drive as he went, this one crashing into the hedge, the lid spinning down towards the street.

Where should I go? I couldn’t leave Molly alone with him. I feared she might come outside when Neil started yelling, but she was nowhere in sight. Surely she heard everything. Poor kid. I needed to check on her. I walked around the house to the back door.

Molly sat sunken in a corner of the couch, eyes glued to the set.

“I’m sorry, honey. I’m sorry you heard that.” What else could I say?

“Go away! Just go away!” She remained determined not to take sides against her Daddy. I leaned over and kissed her head. I put my hands in my pockets so she would not see them trembling.

“Everything’s going to be fine. Maybe in a little while we can work on your science project together?”

She’d brought home an owl pellet from her third grade class and had asked me earlier when we could open it. Her face brightened at the prospect of dissecting it, her anticipation like opening a present: she couldn’t wait to find out what unlucky creature met its fate in the owl’s gullet.

“I’ll go get the things we need,” she said, springing into action.

            “Put some newspaper down and we’ll dissect it on the table right here.”

I motioned to the dining room table pretending I felt normal, as if this was one of those blissful regular days Molly and I shared in Neil’s absence. I washed my hands in the sink, letting the cool water run over my trembling wrists. Molly joined me in the kitchen, her arms full of newspaper and a little foil wrapped pellet held out like a precious egg.

“What else do we need, Mommy?” Her eyes were wider than normal. How must she be feeling? I wanted to step out onto the porch and clobber her father once and for all. How dare he wreck her world like this?

“Um.” I tried to think of what we needed to pull apart and extract remains. “If you can find something really small to pick through the pellet with. Needles maybe? “Can you find the sewing box?” I hoped she couldn’t tell how nervous I was, my teeth chattering between words.

Neil sat on the porch. He peered at us through the screen. I moved to the table and set everything up so our backs were to the door but we knew he was there, watching us. Molly and I sat side-by-side, heads bent over the teeny mass looking for fragments of bone. The screen door opened.

Neil leaned over us and hissed at me, “I will fight you on everything! And I want my fucking bed back. I’m sleeping in my own damn bed and I’m not leaving this house. You better get used to that. I’m not going anywhere, I’m staying right here in this house. The only way I’m leaving this house is in a box! Do you hear me? In a box!”

Molly kept her eyes on the pellet. I tried to get her to look at me as I said quietly,

“Molly, I want you to come with me now. Let’s go for a ride honey.”

I needed to get her out of here.

Molly didn’t budge, still poking around at the mass, her eyes glassy and unfocused. Neil stepped behind her chair, his voice loud.

“You’re not taking my daughter any where! You stay right where you are, Molly! Don’t think you can take her either! Oh no! This is going to be the mother of all fights, so get ready! You will lose everything.”

“Okay, Neil. I get it. Can you please stop this?”

“In a box, do you hear? In a box! That’s the only way I’m leaving!” he said, his teeth bared like an animal.

He went back out on the porch, slamming the door hard behind him. I murmured to Molly in as comforting a tone as I could muster,

“It’s okay, honey, it’s okay.”

Molly’s eyes never left the tiny pile of fur and bones on the table in front of her.

 

It wasn’t okay. Neil moved all of his things back into the bedroom that we once called ours. When he returned to his post, smoking on the porch, I chose the clothing I needed for the next few days and set myself up on the little bed in the private room. It actually was better there, closer to Molly. With the door open between the two rooms we could whisper to each other. That night after reading to Molly, I climbed into the little bed and tried to lose myself in the pages of my own book, the telephone beside me, just in case.

The next morning, the two of us slipped out of the house quietly, not wanting to wake Neil. That wasn’t difficult – I suspected he had sucked down sleeping pills with his beer. Empty bottles were strewn all over the living room. After dropping Molly at school I went to work, immediately emailing the lawyer a report of the events of the evening. In his response, he urged me to move ahead with getting the divorce papers served. But I just didn’t feel safe. Molly and I might need to leave the house first. Climbing into bed with the phone beside my pillow, I rehearsed finding 911 in the dark. The lawyer suggested we try and stay in our home but agreed we should do whatever was necessary for our safety. But where could we go?

That afternoon, after I picked Molly up from school, I drove with her to the beach. Strangely, I hadn’t heard from Neil all day. Usually he called me at work multiple times, trying to be sweet and then, sometimes only minutes later, abusive. It was windy at the beach. Molly wore only a light sweater and I found an old sweatshirt behind the car seat and pulled over her head, the arms drooping long. We walked down to the water to search the rocky sand for beach treasures, stepping between the shallow puddles left by low tide.

“Mommy, I liked it better when it was just you and me at home. It was easier, wasn’t it? Daddy’s acting really crazy. It’s like he has a devil in him.”

She looked up at me with her big blue eyes as we walked out to the gently pulsing waves, jumping away as the water came perilously close to soaking her shoes.

“Yes, he is and that’s a good way to describe it, sweetie. I’m so sorry Molly. Listen, I need to talk to you about something.”

I guided her away from the water, drawing her down next to me onto the sand, still warm from the heat of the day. Yes, a devil in him, this from my eight-year old girl. What damage was being done to her by this ‘devil’? Molly sat close to me and I put my arm around her little shoulders.

“I know you love Daddy and are concerned that he not think that you don’t love him, but you can’t worry about him. It’s true he’s not well right now but he’s the only one who can make him better – not you. You need to take care of you. And let me do that too. So I need you to do something for me: the next time I say to you that we need to leave, I don’t care what’s going on, you need to come with me, okay? Immediately. I need you to do what I say right away. Please Molly, this is really important. I’m the one who is going to keep you safe. You can’t worry about being nice to Daddy when he is acting like he has been, okay? Do you get that?”

Molly stared out to the horizon, tossing rocks at the water as she listened to me. She nodded her head.

“I didn’t know what to do yesterday. I mean I didn’t want to make him feel bad. And then, I just couldn’t move. It was like I was stuck to the chair.”

“I know, honey, really I do. Don’t feel bad about yesterday – I understand how you felt and you did absolutely nothing wrong. It’s just in the future, please, if something like that ever happens again, we will go somewhere safe until we know that he’s calmed down. You are right, it’s like a devil is in him – not Daddy.”

The sun dropped low on the horizon, the wind picked up rippling across the water. Slowly, we made our way back to the car, Molly’s warm hand in mine.

“I love you, Molly.”

“I love you more.”

“No. I love you more!”

We climbed into the car for the short drive home.

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