There she was, sitting on her bench in the winter garden, looking down at her own hands. Tiny white Christmas lights entwined the wrought-iron fence, made the garden look like a magical box in the middle of all that night. Snow fell softly around her, making the substantial look illusory. Nina went to the entryway and grabbed some snow boots and a coat. Dressing quickly, she went outside, trying to ignore the tiny burn-like landings of snowflakes on her cheeks and lips. This was exactly why she worked near the equator.
“Mom?” she said, coming up beside her. “You shouldn’t be out here. It’s cold.”
“It is not cold.”
Nina heard the exhaustion in her mother’s voice and it reminded her of how tired she was, and how terrible this day had been, and the awful day that was coming, and so Nina sat down beside her mother.
For what seemed like an eternity, neither one of them spoke. Finally, Mom said, “Your father thinks I cannot handle his death.”
“Can you?” Nina asked simply.
“You would be amazed at what the human heart can endure.”
Nina had seen the truth of that all over the world. Ironically, it was what her warrior women photographs were all about. “That doesn’t mean the pain isn’t unbearable. In Kosovo, during the fighting, I talked to—”
“Do not tell me about your work. These are discussions you have with your father. War does not interest me.”
Nina wasn’t hurt by that; at least that was what she told herself. She knew better than to reach out to her mother. “Sorry. Just making conversation.”
“Do not.” Mom reached down to touch the copper column that stood amid a messy coil of dead brown vines. Here and there red holly berries peeked through the snow, framed by glossy green leaves. Not that her mother could see these colors, of course. Her birth defect precluded her seeing the true beauty in her garden. Meredith had never understood why a woman who saw the world in black and white would care so much about flowers, but Nina knew the power of black and white images. Sometimes a thing was its truest self when the colors were stripped away.
“Come on, Mom,” Nina said. “I’ll make us some dinner.”
“You do not cook.”
“And whose fault is that?” Nina said automatically. “A mother is supposed to teach her daughter how to cook.”
“I know, I know. It is my fault. All of it.” Mom stood up, grabbed her knitting needles, and walked away.
The dogs greeted Meredith as if she’d been gone for a decade. She scratched their ears without any real enthusiasm and went into the house, turning on the lights as she made her way from the kitchen to the living room.
“Jeff?” she called out.
Silence answered her.
At that, she did exactly what she didn’t want to do: she made herself a rum (heavy on the rum) and Diet Coke and walked out to the porch. There, she sat down on the white love seat and stared out at the moonlit valley. In this light, the orchard looked almost sinister, all those bare, crooked limbs jutting up from the dirty layer of snow.
Reaching down to the left, she grabbed the old wool blanket from its place in a basket and wrapped it around her. She didn’t know how to survive this grief, how to accept what was coming.
Without her father, Meredith feared she would be like one of those dormant apple trees: bare, vulnerable, exposed. She wanted to believe she wouldn’t be alone with her grief, but who would be there for her? Nina? Jeff? Her children? Mom?
That was the biggest laugh of all. Mom had never been there for Meredith. Now it would be the two of them alone, connected by the thin strand of a dead man’s love and precious little more.
Behind her, the door squeaked open. “Mere? What are you doing out here? It’s freezing. I’ve been waiting for you.”
“I needed to be alone.” She saw that she’d hurt him, and she wanted to take it back, undo it, but the effort was beyond her. “I didn’t mean that.”
“Yes, you did.”
She stood up so quickly the blanket fell away from her shoulders and landed in a heap on the love seat. Forcing a smile, she edged past him and went inside.
In the living room, she sat down in one of the club chairs by the fireplace, grateful that he’d made a fire. She was suddenly freezing. Her fingers tightened around the glass and she took a big gulp of her drink. It wasn’t until he came up beside her, and looked down, that she realized she should have sat on the sofa so he could be beside her.
He made himself a drink and sat down on the hearth. He looked tired. And disappointed, too. “I thought you’d want to talk about it,” he said quietly.
“How can I help?”
“He’s dying, Jeff. There, I said it. We’re talking. I feel much better now.”
“Damn it, Mere.”
She looked at him, knowing she was being a bitch, and unfair, too, but she couldn’t stop herself. She just wanted to be alone, to crawl into some dark place where she could pretend this wasn’t happening. Her heart was breaking. Why couldn’t he see that, and why did he think he could somehow hold it together in his hands? “What do you want from me, Jeff? I don’t know how to handle this.”
He moved toward her then, pulled her to her feet. The ice rattled in her glass—she was shaking; why hadn’t she known that?—and he took the drink from her, put it on the table beside her chair.
“I talked to Evan today.”
“Of course he’s worried. He’s . . .” She couldn’t say it again.
“Dying,” Jeff said softly. “But that’s not what’s bothering him. He’s worried about you and Nina and your mother and me. He’s afraid this family will fall apart without him.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she said, but the softness of her voice betrayed her.
At the touch of his lips to hers, she remembered how much she’d once loved him, how much she wanted to love him now. She wanted to put her arms around him and cling to him, but she was so cold. Numb.
He held her as he hadn’t held her in years, as if he’d fall apart if she let him go, and he kissed her ear, whispering, “Hold me.”
She almost cracked right there, almost broke apart. She tried to lift her arms and couldn’t do it.
Jeff drew back, letting her go. He stared at her a long time, so long she wondered what it was he saw.
For a moment, he looked like he was going to say something, but in the end, he just walked away.
What was there to say, really?
Her father was dying. Nothing could change that. Words were like pennies, fallen into corners and down the cracks, not worth the effort of collecting.
Nina had spent a lot of time with injured or dying people, standing witness, revealing universal pain through individual suffering. She was good at it, too, able to somehow be both completely in the moment and detached enough to record it. As terrible as it had often been, her place beside makeshift hospital beds, watching people with catastrophic injuries, everything that came before paled in comparison to this moment, when she was suffering herself. On this day when her father came home from the hospital, she couldn’t hold back, couldn’t put her grief in a box and lock it shut.
She was standing in her parents’ bedroom, beside the big window that overlooked the winter garden and the orchard beyond. Outside, the sky was a bold cerulean blue; cloudless. A pale winter sun shone down, its warm breath melting the crusty layer of yellowing snow. Water dripped from the eaves, no doubt studding the snow along the porch rail below.
She brought the camera to her eye and focused on Meredith, who was looking down at Dad, trying to smile; Nina captured the frailty in her sister’s face, the sadness in her eyes. Next, she focused on her mother, who stood beside the bed, looking as regal as Lauren Bacall, as cold as Barbara Stanwyck.
From his place in the big bed, with stark white pillows and blankets piled around him, Dad looked thin and old and fading. He blinked slowly, his mottled eyelids falling like flags to half-mast and then lifting again. Through the viewfinder, Nina saw his rheumy brown eyes focus on her. The shock of it, of the directness of his gaze, surprised her.
“No cameras,” he said. His voice was frayed and tired, not his voice at all, and somehow that loss, the very sound of him, was worse than all the rest. She knew why he’d said that. He knew her, knew why the camera was important to her now.
Nina lowered the camera slowly, feeling nak*d suddenly, vulnerable. Without that thin layer of a glass lens, she was here instead of there, looking at her father, who was dying. She moved in toward the bed, stood beside Meredith. Mom was on the other side. All of them were tucked in close.
“I will be back in a moment,” Mom said.
Dad nodded at her. The look that passed between her parents was so intimate that Nina felt almost like an intruder.
As soon as Mom was gone, Dad looked at Meredith. “I know you’re afraid,” he said quietly.
“We don’t need to talk about it,” Meredith said.
“Unless you want to talk about it,” Nina said, reaching down for his hand. “You must be afraid, Dad . . . of dying.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Meredith said, stepping back from the bed.
Nina didn’t want to explain to her sister, not now, but she’d lived alongside death for years. She knew there were peaceful passings and angry, desperate ones. As hard as it was for her to contemplate his dying, she wanted to help him. She brushed the white hair away from his age-spotted forehead, remembering suddenly how he’d looked as a younger man, when his face had been tanned from working in his orchard. All except for his forehead, which was always pale because of the hats he wore.
“Your mom,” he said, speaking with obvious effort. “She’ll break without me. . . .”
“I’ll take care of her, Dad. I promise,” Meredith said unsteadily. “You know that.”
“She can’t do it again . . . ,” Dad said. He closed his eyes and let out a tired sigh. His breathing became labored.
“Can’t do what again?” Nina asked.
“Who are you, Barbara Walters?” Meredith snapped. “Back off. Let him sleep.”
“But he said—”
“He told us to take care of Mom. Like he even had to ask.” Meredith busied herself with his blankets and fluffed his pillows. She was like an über-competent nurse. Nina understood; Meredith was so afraid that she had to keep busy. Next, she knew, her sister would run away.
“Stay,” Nina said. “We need to talk—”
“I can’t,” Meredith said. “The business doesn’t stop just because I want it to. I’ll be back in an hour.”
And then she was gone.
Nina reached instinctively for her camera and started taking pictures; not to show anyone, just for herself. As she looked down at him, focused on his pale face, the tears she’d been fighting turned him into a gray and white smear in the midst of that huge four-poster wooden bed. She wanted to say, I love you, Dad, but the words had hooks that wouldn’t let go.