“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Christmas rushed in without flourish or elation. The traditional aromas of a basted turkey, pumpkin pie, and Granny’s potato salad vacated Momma’s kitchen, as multiple containers from well-meaning friends moved in. Perusing the contents one could surmise fried chicken and ham is Suffolk’s comfort food. Regardless, grief robs the appetite.
Like the scene from Charles Dicken’s The Christmas Carol, where an abandoned walking stick leans against the fireplace and a tiny chair is vacated, Tricia’s imprint survived her. The bird in the Black Forest clock she purchased for Mom, still coos every hour. Part of me wished the bird croaked out of respect for the departed, but I know time is a healer, for it to stop in the darkest hour would be torture for a grieving soul. God ushers us through the darkness by allowing the birds to coo, the sun to show up in the morning, and the moon to work the nightshift.
Tricia’s hand-painted ornaments dangle from the Christmas tree. They hold a sacred value now. Years ago, she gifted us with her first attempt, a messy painted Orca for my son Nick. It broke. I’d do anything to have it back now. Why do we hold the relics left behind tighter after the benefactor departs? Maybe we’re holding onto to a piece of their talent… a shred of their spirit…proof she once was.
Mom’s den is full of us. We remain a loud lot, still talking over one another. Albeit her voice is silent, as if one instrument is missing from the orchestra. I miss her laughter and that ever smack on the arm she gave you when she found something funny, which sometimes threw you off balance.
I never suspected last Christmas would have been her last. Looking back, I wish I’d known, for it wasn’t a joyful Christmas for her. Unfortunately, some announcements have to be made.
Tracey (Brandon’s wife) walked into the kitchen. “Tricia slipped out crying. She drove off,” she said. I dropped the pan I was washing back into the sudsy water and snatched a towel.
“I was afraid of that,” I said. “We have to find her.”
An hour later, Mom and I gathered her in our arms, and together we mourned over the opposite directions our lives were taking. Like a moving walkway, she was going one way and I another, while both of us wanted to put on the brakes.
The next day, we stood outside our parent’s house, waiting on Momma to go shopping in Smithfield. A wall of tension divided us, both riddled with our own guilt for the day before.
“Look, I’m sorry for yesterday,” she said. “It’s not that I’m not happy for you and Jay, it’s just…hard you know?”
“I would have felt the same way,” I said.
“It’s just this…while you’re growing life, I’m growing cancer cells. You’re getting ultrasounds while I’m getting PET scans.” She pointed towards my abdomen. “Your looking forward to the day you meet your baby, while I’m dreading the day I’m saying goodbye to mine. You’re looking ahead and making plans, while I’m remembering the past and trying hard to hold onto what I have left.” Her sad eyes pleaded with me to understand.
I’d chewed on the irony of our situation, but I’d never truly digested it until then.
“Anyway, I just need you to know how I feel,” she said.
I shivered. A cold breeze stirred up the dead leaves. One floated on the wind past us. I resisted the urge to catch it, allowing the wind to spirit it away. I pulled my sweater closed at the nape of my neck. Tricia was never bothered by the cold.
“It’s not fair is it?” My voice cracked.
She shrugged. “It’s life, but sometimes it’s hard to take.”
“I want you to know I’d never try to get pregnant. I had other plans for my…Well, I would never do that since you’re…” Suddenly, everything I wanted to say at that moment seemed cruel.
She smiled understanding my struggle. “You can make it up to me.” she said.
“Just promise you’ll get really fat,” she said.
We laughed. I should have seen it coming, our traditional jab. The laughter filled me with hope. She’d still love me, though I reflected health and vitality, the very things slipping away, like water through her fingers.
She placed her hand on my baby bump. “You’re already showing.”
“My body just knows what to do by the fourth one,” I said.
Her smile faded as her eyes met mine. “When she comes, I will go.”
Like the quick, feathery touch of a hummingbird across your cheek, for a moment I thought I’d imagined the words; nonetheless, I stepped back as if she slugged me. “She? Wait. What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re going to have a girl, and when she comes it’ll be my time.”
I turned away, so she couldn’t see the pain her words caused me. “You don’t know everything Tricia Baines. Besides, Jay’s track record proves he only makes boy babies.”
She grabbed my arm. “Listen, I know.” She needed me to believe her. It felt disrespectful…shallow even… to argue with someone standing on the banks of eternity awaiting permission to cross.
She looked up at the sky and took a deep breath. The sun shined on her yellowish face and the wind flittered through her short twigs of chemo frizzed hair. “I’m not saying this baby will replace me,” she said. “Of course, no one will replace me.” She laughed. “God just knows you will have a tough time, so He’s giving you this baby to…you know…keep you busy.”
Acceptance filled her voice, like a soothing lullaby. She leaned on her faith for strength and dignity, while I carried the burden of survivor’s guilt, the weight of it left me hunched. I’m sorry for being healthy. Sorry for being pregnant. Sorry I get to see your daughter grow up and your boys get married. Sorry…sorry…sorry… There was never enough.
That day, I packed her words away in my heart, and the moment I heard my daughter’s first cry they rushed back. Isabella was born without one push, as if she propelled herself into my world knowing her mission, to save Mommy from sinking into despair. I wondered how God could put such a tender heart in me and expect me to survive the stretch it endured on August 7th, a day of great joy fused with incredible dread of what was to come. Isabella came into my life, as my sister was leaving. For a brief moment in time, two precious feminine spirits met in the physical realm, as if the baton of girlhood was handed off, and the weary one passed on into the spiritual.
Twelve days before Tricia died, Thomas held Bella in front of her, and her eyes focused on Bella’s toes.“I see you eyeing those toes,” Thomas said. “Ya’ know you want to touch ‘em. Go ahead.”
Slowly the back of her cupped hand barely caressed the top of Bella’s foot. It was the last touch Bella felt from her Aunt Tricia and cost Tricia all her concentration and energy to give it. The last bit of love she could muster for an infant she would never know.
True to Tricia’s prediction, Isabella Fawn was born at 4:15 in the afternoon, and Tricia died close to that time, nineteen weeks later.
She didn’t live to see another Christmas.