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No Happily Ever After
Everybody makes mistakes. That's what our parents tell us. But sometimes that lesson is hard, even for them.
Proud member of the Warren Central State Champion speech team.
No Happily Ever After
I will always remember my 8th birthday. Even now 20 years later, I can recall exactly what time I woke up—8:28—and I can remember exactly what I ate for breakfast—eight silver dollar double chocolate chip pancakes topped with whipped cream, gummy bears, and ungodly amounts of syrup—because Mom knew that was my favorite, and the family doctor had assured her that my baby fat wouldn’t last forever. After thoroughly gorging myself, I hurried to get dressed and raced out the door to the front porch where my dad was waiting in his rocking chair, two pairs of skates in his lap.
“You ready, Bellaboo?” he asked.
There was a lake on the edge of our property just a few miles east of the house, and every winter it would completely freeze over. Somewhere along the line it became tradition for Dad and I to make the hike out to the lake on my birthday and spend the morning ice-skating. Just the two of us.
It was my favorite three hours of the year.
That was the last time I ever skated.
On the long walk back home, I always asked Dad to tell me a story, and as if he didn’t already know the answer, he always asked, “What kind of story?”
“The kind with a happily ever after.” What other kind was there?
Two damsels in distress and a glass slipper later, we were walking through our front door. Mom had been cooking up a storm in the kitchen, and at our entrance, she ordered dad to get the punch from the outside freezer and shooed me off to help my 4-old-brother Remy set the table.
I went into the dinning room to find the china stacked next to the silverware, and no Remy in sight.
After searching the first floor, I was about to head up stairs when I almost stumbled over him in the stairwell.
“Remy, Mom said…Is that Dad’s gun?”
I stared uneasily at the large, heavy rifle clutched in my brother’s small, little hands. There was no mistaking it for a toy; that was Dad’s hunting rifle.
“How did you get that? You know you’re not supposed to touch it!”
“I’m a cowboy! And I’m gonna shoot me some Indians! Kapow! Kapow!”
I reached for the rifle, but he drew back, clutching the gun to his chest. I pulled, then he pulled, and I pulled again, so that we we’re engaged in some sort of tug-of-war, the rifle trapped between us. I tried to wrestle it away from him, but he just wouldn’t let go!
“Remy! Give it to me!”
I adjusted my hand for a better grip, ready to give one last tug with all my strength, when I felt something give beneath my finger, and then there was this BANG!
He stopped fighting me and I stumbled back with the gun in arms. Mom came running from the other room. She looked at me, looked at the gun, and looked at Remy lying on the steps.
“What happened? What did you do!”
“It was an accident,” I murmured, but she didn’t hear me. I stood watching as she sobbed into Remy’s hair, rocking him back and forth in her lap. I stood watching as my dad yelled into the phone, telling the operator his son was dying. I stood watching as the ambulance arrived…too late, and my brother was taken away in a black bag never to come back.
As clearly as I can recall the day of my eighth birthday, the ten years following it are a complete blur marked only by questions, tears, and silence. Because I never had the courage to sell her otherwise, my mother blamed me for Remy’s death. She never said it aloud of course, but the accusation was there in her forced smiles and hesitant touch. And dad? I’m not really sure how he felt because he never spoke more that a word to me at once, and when we were in the same room, his gaze would just sort of skim over me never settling on my face or meeting my eyes.
When your birthday’s the anniversary of your brother’s death, there’s not much cause for celebration. So on the morning I turned 18, instead of going skating, we drove to the cemetery to visit Remy’s grave. Me, Mom, Dad, and Aunt Carol.
After only a few minutes of standing at his grave in oppressive silence, I excused myself, wandering a little ways away. Eventually I made my way back, but just when I was about to turn past the large stone monument at the end of the row, I heard my mother’s voice, and it was more sincere and more pained than I’d heard in ten years.
“Carol, I just can’t stand it anymore. Looking at her is just…all I see is Remy, and all I can think about is how if she just hadn’t gotten out the gun, he’d still be here. She knew better…You know, I’m relieved that she’s leaving for college. I’m actually glad that she’ll be gone. What kind of mother am I? I can’t stand looking at my own daughter! What kind of parent resents their own child?”
Aunt Carol laid a soothing hand on my mother’s back, and my father continued to stare motionlessly at the tombstone. He only had eyes for his dead son.
At college, away from childhood ghosts and demons, I found a world that didn’t condemn me and more importantly didn’t remind me. I was Bella the college student, Bella the graduate, and Bella the teacher, not Bella the girl who shot and killed her litter brother.
Two weeks ago, twenty years to the day after Remy’s death, I received a call from my Mom. It was the first time we’d talked since I’d left. She cried and told me she was sorry and that I had to come home right away because Dad was in the hospital and the doctors said he didn’t have very long.
When I entered his hospital room, I felt like I was eight all over again. I didn’t know what to say to the sick man lying on his death bed, a man who I, for all intents and purposes, hadn’t talked to in 20 years. But then he raised his arm out to me and said, “It’s been a while, Bellaboo.”
“I’m sorry,” I said to him, and his faint smile was all the forgiveness I needed. He told me how he had never blamed me for Remy’s death, only himself for leaving a loaded gun in the house. But things just didn’t happen without a reason; he had to see that.
“Dad, tell me. Just, tell me why. Because I’ve asked God and I’ve asked a dozen therapists, and none of them can tell me. Just…why?”
He didn’t have an answer. So I sat by his bed in silence, his hand tucked carefully in mine. The hours wasted wordlessly away like the last 20 years, and I listened as his breathing became shallow, labored. And in a raspy voice worn thin with cancer and the knowledge that death was approaching he said, “Bellaboo, tell me a story.”
“What kind of story?”
“The kind with a happily ever after.”
“I’m sorry, Dad. I don’t know any of those.”
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© 2009 Adria Steuer
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