Chapter One—Not quite the end of me
"Mom…Jules spilled her juice."
I looked in the rearview for a second and clenched my jaw. The thousands of errands didn't go away. The thousands of obligations felt like they had doubled. Nothing was ever going to be small again. This wasn’t the plan, not that there had ever been one.
I sighed and turned around. "Mitch, clean it up for her," I said trying not to be angry. She was five and my temper was short fused.
He gave me the look his father always gave and rolled his eyes, "With what?" The shitty-tween attitude was the icing on the cake of doom, that I was currently being force-fed.
The traffic slowed, giving me a chance to reach around in my yoga bag for the sweaty towel, I still had not taken out of the van. I flung it over the seat at him.
"Jules, no spilling. Mommy can't stop." I could, but I was scared of what would happen if I stopped the van and thought, for even a second. Stopping had been bad, thinking had been worse.
She smiled her bright face and nodded, "Uhmkay." It was more of a sound and less of a word, but she was five and sounds were still huge for her.
Her bright-blue eyes, and the way she looked up at me through her lashes, the way he used to, brought it on. The tightening of the chest was first. The tears were unstoppable. The minivan didn’t feel as big as it actually was. I was sure it was closing in on me.
He hadn’t loved me. That also hadn’t ever been part of the plan. I knew we had taken a risk getting married, but the fact he hadn’t loved me, never crossed my mind.
My body pulled forward, as the need to rock filled me.
My broken heart wouldn’t stay hidden much longer; it wouldn’t let me be okay in front of them. It forced its way, bursting tears from me and ripping at my chest. A sob slipped from my pressed lips. Everything felt like an avalanche of bad things, and all I could do was watch, as they rolled down the hill and buried me.
I made the mistake I feared making. I stopped moving. I swerved the van into a motel parking lot on the side of the road and collapsed into the steering wheel. The moving van was keeping my mind moving.
No sounds escaped my lips. The tears blinded me; at least the van was stopped.
I heaved, but managed to hold back the noises. Slight whimpers slipped past the hold I had, that trembled like a twig about to snap.
"Mommy, you said you couldn’t stop," her squeaky voice broke the silence.
I moaned slightly as I pressed the button for the music. Philip Philips sang loud and clear, filling the van with fun and fast music.
I shook for the second I needed and wiped my face. Mitch never looked up from his iPod and Julie colored on her tray, nodding her head to the music. I rocked, ever so slightly.
I was struggling to get some semblance of control as my body fought for gasps of air. I wiped my face clean and agreed with my brain’s demand of alcohol. I needed a drink.
I needed so many things… too many.
I drove back toward the road in silence. The song ended and when a new one came on, I braved a glance at them. Mitch's bright-blue eyes caught mine. He frowned, but I shook my head and smiled at him. Nothing could hide the breakdown, I was about to have. Nothing would make any of it better. I just needed to be alone and let the dam break.
He had cheated our family, and instead of facing the music like a man, he had died. He didn’t even have the consideration to let me find out, the way I deserved. He had made me the object of gossip. He had made me a fool.
The funeral home looked exactly how it should. I drove into the parking lot and looked back at Mitch, "Be right back, okay?"
He nodded. I locked the van and handed him my cell phone. My parenting skills were slowly diminishing. They too, were being smothered by the avalanche of bad things.
I walked up to the funeral home door where a man with dark hair and dull eyes answered the door, "Mrs. Evans, I presume?"
I nodded. He glanced back at the kids in the van and smiled. It didn't improve the lifelessness in his dark stare, "They are more than welcome to come in."
I shook my head and walked past him, "Do you have an office that I can sit in a window and watch them?"
He held a hand out, "Of course we do. This way." I walked the way he was pointing and turned to the right, past the doorway.
He opened the door to an office just past the main area with the pews and podium. I walked in and sat in a small wooden chair. From the window, I could watch my minivan. This wasn’t going to be a habit. I was going to be a better parent than that. Once I buried him and he was gone and I crawled out from under the rubble, I would try harder to be better.
"I'm so sorry about your husband," he said pleasantly, as he sat in the chair across from me. His way of speaking made me uncomfortable; how many times a day did he have cause for that sentence? How many apologies did he hand out? If he had known about the type of husband I had had, would he still offer condolences, or would I be getting the glass of wine I wanted?
"How are they taking it?" he glanced over his shoulder at the silver van.
I shook my head blankly, "They're sad, but it’s just regular sad." It was true. They were no sadder than they would have been, if it had been Ralph, our cat. James had always worked away a lot. It wasn’t anything new for them. It made me sadder they accepted it so easily. In the eight weeks since we had learned of his death, they had completed all of their stages of grief. I had to repeat all of mine, when I had found out about the other things.
I had been the grieving widow for a few days and then the angry ex-wife. Now I was somewhere in the middle, making me a terrible combination of both.
He nodded, "Of course they are. How old are they?"
I answered him. I didn’t want to, but my mouth wanted to move. I wanted someone to know about my sadness. "Ten and five. He was having an affair." There they were… those words. They slipped out before I could stop them.
His eyes lifted but he didn’t miss a beat, "I'm so sorry. That’s a tragedy to lose a father so young."
I hated that word. Lose. I didn’t lose him. They didn’t lose him. He wasn’t lost, he was dead and so was I.
I would never be whole again. James and the kids had been my everything, because I made them that way. I believed his lies and drank the Kool-Aid, and not even the funeral director would pay attention to the pain that I had laid out for him so clearly. He moved past it, like he didn’t hear it, but we both still felt it there in the air where I had left it. James was having an affair and no one cared.
“The kids bounce back faster than we do,” he said softly, letting that be his comment on the subject.
But I was having a sickeningly hard time, making my kids be my everything or the focus. Their pain had somehow taken a serious backseat to the betrayal, I had let overcome me.
Being a mom used to be the easy part, but my pity and shame had gotten bigger than I could handle. They had joined the avalanche and I was buried.
"Do you have any questions?" he asked.
I snapped back, "Costs mostly." I felt hollow and dead.
Somehow the director of the funeral home was calming with his general lack of personality. He made me numb, as if I were dead inside like him. His dark hair had no sheen and his dark eyes were lifeless. He was surrounded by so much death that he actually seemed dead. He was a vacuum that pulled all of my emotions away, leaving us both hollow shells.
He clasped his hands, "Of course. Well, the military covers some of the funeral costs for a man like him, but the remaining balance will be yours. The VA only covers about three hundred dollars of our bill for a person not on active duty, at the time of death. The remaining few thousand will have to be covered by you." He didn't sugarcoat it. I didn't mind that. I think I preferred the fact he was dead inside too.
"Can I write you a cheque?" I asked calmly.
He nodded and put his cold pale hands on his cherry-wood desk, "Of course. The service is planned for Sunday, still?"
I nodded and shivered and fought the dark places my brain wanted to go, “It is. They finally cleared the body.” The military had been slow to transport him home and even slower to release his remains.
He slid a document to me and passed me a pen. I took it and signed where the red lines were. My fingers shook, making my name look different than it ever had. It wasn’t my name, not really. It was the name of a lady who was married to a guy named James Evans. A man who loved his family, worked hard, and made his wife feel like she was safe.
That lady was gone and I was left in her stead. I didn’t know what my next move was, but the safety was gone, and the love was entirely based on his being with me. The love and warmth left with him.
I was stuck living behind the wall of bullshit he had built around us. The wall I never bothered to try to climb and see the world for what it really was.
I choked out a sob and stood up quickly, "Thank you." I scribbled on a cheque and left it on the desk. I turned and ran to the van, clicking the unlock button like it was broken.
Inside the van, I wanted to lose it. I wanted to let myself slip into it, but they were watching me. I wiped my face and smiled, "MacDonald's?"
Mitch wrinkled his nose and shook his head, "Grandma took us there yesterday. Can you just make eggs like Dad used to, with the hole in the bread?"
My heart broke and my lip quivered as the tears flooded my face. The sounds coming from me were evidence of the struggle I was facing. I nodded, "Yeah," and started the van.
Julie started to cry, "Mommy. Mommy." She sobbed with me, wiggling in her seat. She always cried when I did. Mitch wiped his eyes and looked down. I unbuckled my seatbelt and jumped from the van. I opened the sliding door with a savage jerk and ripped her from the chair, smothering her with my love, trying not to get any of my self-pity on her. The smell of raspberry shampoo in her golden curls seeped into my bones. I sobbed into her neck and waved at Mitch to come to me. He climbed forward. I grabbed his arm and dragged him to me. I wrapped myself around them as much as I could. I needed to shield them. They didn’t deserve the fate they got, and they didn’t need to know what all was in the package deal. They didn’t need to know about the wall of bullshit.