Marah said quietly, “Here goes,” and started to read aloud.
Panic always comes to me in the same way. First, I get a knot in the pit of my stomach that turns to nausea, then a fluttery breathlessness that no amount of deep breathing can cure. But what causes my fear is different every day; I never know what will set me off. It could be a kiss from my husband, or the lingering look of sadness in his eyes when he draws back. Sometimes I know he’s already grieving for me, missing me even while I’m still here. Worse yet is Marah’s quiet acceptance of everything I say. I would give anything for another of our old knock-down, drag-out fights. That’s one of the first things I’d say to you now, Marah: Those fights were real life. You were struggling to break free of being my daughter but unsure of how to be yourself, while I was afraid to let you go. It’s the circle of love. I only wish I’d recognized it then. Your grandmother told me I’d know you were sorry for those years before you did, and she was right. I know you regret some of the things you said to me, as I regret my own words. None of that matters, though. I want you to know that. I love you and I know you love me.
But these are just more words, aren’t they? I want to go deeper than that. So, if you’ll bear with me (I haven’t really written anything in years), I have a story to tell you. It’s my story, and yours, too. It starts in 1960 in a small farming town up north, in a clapboard house on a hill above a horse pasture. When it gets good, though, is 1974, when the coolest girl in the world moved into the house across the street …
Marah lost herself in the story of a lonely fourteen-year-old girl who got made fun of on the bus and lived through her favorite fictional characters. They called me Kootie and laughed at my clothes and asked me where the flood was and I never said a word, just hugged my brown-paper-wrapped schoolbooks closer to my chest. Frodo was my best friend that year, and Gandalf and Sam and Aragon. I imagined myself on some mythical quest. Marah could picture it perfectly: an unpopular girl who sat out one night under the stars and happened to meet another lonely girl. A few chance words that night became the start of a friendship that changed both of their lives.
And we thought we looked good. Have you gone there yet, Marah? Followed fashion to a ridiculous place that makes no sense and still looked in the mirror and seen a cool, magical version of yourself? That was the eighties for me. Of course, Tully was in full control of my wardrobe …
Marah touched her short black hair, remembering when it was pink and gelled …
When I met your father, it was magic. Not for him—not then—but for me. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can look into a pair of eyes and see your whole future. I wish that kind of love for you kids—don’t accept anything less.
When I held my babies and looked into their murky eyes, I found my life’s work. My passion. My purpose. It may not be trendy, but I was born to be a mother, and I loved every single second of it. You and your brothers taught me everything there was to know about love, and it breaks my heart to leave you.
The journal kept going, winding and turning and bending through the years of her mother’s life; by the time Marah came to the end, the sun was gone; night had fallen and Marah hadn’t even noticed. Orange exterior light came through the windowpanes. Marah clicked on the bedside lamp and kept reading aloud.
Here’s what you need to know, Marah. You are a struggler, a railer-against-the-machine. I know losing me will wound you deeply. You’ll remember our arguments and fights.
Forget them, baby girl. That was just you being you and me being me. Remember the rest of it—the hugs, the kisses, the sandcastles we made, the cupcakes we decorated, the stories we told each other. Remember how I loved you, every single bit of you. Remember I loved your fire and your passion. You are the best of me, Marah, and I hope that someday you’ll discover that I am the best of you, too. Let everything else go. Just remember how we loved each other.
Love. Family. Laughter. That’s what I remember when it’s all said and done. For so much of my life I thought I didn’t do enough or want enough. I guess I can be forgiven for my stupidity. I was young. I want my children to know how proud I am of them, and how proud I am of me. We were everything we needed—you and Daddy and the boys and I. I had everything I ever wanted.
That’s what we remember.
Marah stared down at the last word—remember—through a glaze of tears that burned her eyes and blurred the text. In that watery haze, she pictured her mother down to the minutest detail—her blond hair that never seemed to fall right, her green eyes that looked right into your soul and knew exactly what you were thinking, the way she knew when a slammed door was an invitation and when it wasn’t, the way she laughed in fits and starts, the way she brushed the hair from Marah’s eyes and whispered, “Always, baby girl,” just before a kiss good night.
“Oh, my God, Tully … I remember her…”
* * *
I can feel my heart beating. In it, I hear the rise and fall of the tides, the whoosh of a summer breeze, the beat of a drum.
Memories of sound.
But now there is something else in my darkness, tapping at me, prodding me, unsettling the beat of my heart.
I open my eyes, not even realizing that they’ve been closed, but it makes no difference; there is nothing to see except the endless black around me.
That’s me. Or it was me. I hear it again, my name, and as the letters coalesce, echo with sound, I become aware of tiny bits of light, fireflies maybe, or flashlight beams, dancing around me, darting like fish.
Words. The starlight points are words, floating down to me.
“… coolest girl in the world…”
“… the sandcastles we made…”
“… the best of you…”
I draw in a sharp breath of discovery; it rattles in my chest like a pair of dice.
It is her voice I hear, but the words are Kate’s. Her journal. I read it so many times over the years I have memorized it. I find myself straining forward, reaching out. Darkness presses back, restrains me, starlight is falling past me.
Someone takes my hand. Marah. I feel it, the warm strength of her grip, the curl of her fingers around mine; the only real thing in this world that makes no sense.
You can hear her, Kate says.
I turn and there she is, bathed in gorgeous, impossible light. I see her inside the glow, her green eyes, her blond hair, her wide smile.
Through the darkness I hear: “Oh, my God, Tully. I remember her.”
And just like that, I remember me. The life I lived, the lessons I didn’t learn, the way I failed the people I loved and how much I loved them. I remember watching them gather around my bedside, hearing them pray for me. I want them back. I want me back.
I stare at Katie and see it all in her eyes: our past. There’s more, too: longing. I see the love she has for all of us—me, her husband, her children, her parents—and how that love is shiny with both hope and loss.
What do you want, Tully?
Marah’s words fall around us, glimmering in the water, landing on my skin like kisses. “I want another chance,” I say, and as I say it, the power of my choice pulses through me, gives strength to my tired, listless limbs.
I came to say goodbye. I need to move on, Tul. So do you. I need you to say goodbye to me and smile. That’s all I need. A smile to let me know you’re going to be okay.
I’m gone, Tul. But I’ll always be with you. Go …
“I’ll never forget us.”
I know that. Now, go. Live. It’s such a gift … and … tell my boys—
“I know,” I say quietly. She has given me messages. I hold the words close to my heart, tuck them into my soul. I will tell Lucas that his mother comes to him at night and whispers in his ear and watches over his sleep, that she is happy and wants the same for him … I’ll tell Wills it’s okay to be sad and to stop fighting to fill that empty space where his mom used to be. I’m not gone, that was her message. Just away. I’ll teach them all the things she would have, and make sure they know how much she loves them.
Turning away from her is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Instantly I am cold, and my body feels heavy. There is a huge black hill in front of me, so steep it seems to push me back when I try to climb it.
At the top, there is a flash of light. I strain forward, lean into it, take another step.
The light is moving away from me.
I have to get to the top, where the world is, but I am so tired, so tired. Still, I keep trying. I climb slowly. Each step fights me. The darkness pushes back. Starlight turns to snow and each falling flake burns my skin. But there is a light, and it’s getting stronger. It is like a lighthouse beam, flashing every now and then to show me the way.
I am breathing hard now, thinking, Please, realizing it is a prayer. The first real one of my life.
I am not going to make it.
I will make it. I imagine Katie beside me, just like the old days, pushing our bikes up Summer Hill with only moonlight to guide us. I surge forward, and suddenly I am cresting the hill. I smell gardenia and dried lavender.
Light is everywhere now, hurting my eyes, blinding me. It comes from a small conical thing beside me.
I blink, trying to control my breathing.
“I did it, Katie,” I whisper, my voice too small to be heard. Maybe I don’t even say it aloud. I wait for her to say, I know, but there is only the sound of my breathing.
I open my eyes again, try to focus. There is someone beside me; I see her in slashes of light and shadow. A face, looking down at me.
Marah. She looks like she used to, beautiful and healthy. “Tully?” she says cautiously, as if I am a spirit or an illusion.
If I am dreaming, I welcome it. I am back. “Marah,” takes me forever to say.
* * *
I try to hold on, to stay, but I can’t do it. Time falls away from me. I open my eyes—see Marah and Margie—and I try to smile, but I am so weak. And is that my mother’s face? I try to say something; all that comes out is a croak of sound. And maybe I imagine it.
The next thing I know, I am asleep again.
Dorothy sat in the hospital waiting room, hands clasped in her lap, knees pressed together so closely the knobby bones bumped each other every time she moved. They were all here now: Johnny and his twin sons; Marah, who looked glazed and nervous and couldn’t seem to sit still; Margie and Bud. It had been three days since Tully opened her eyes and tried to speak. They had immediately moved her back to the hospital, where the waiting game had begun again.
It had seemed like a miracle, at first, but now Dorothy wasn’t so sure. She knew better than to believe in miracles, anyway, didn’t she?
Dr. Bevan assured them that Tully was truly waking; he told them that it often took time to become fully conscious after so long a sleep. He warned them that there would probably be some lasting effects, and that certainly made sense. You couldn’t sleep for a year and then wake up and ask for coffee and a donut.