The memory of my fight with Mom after the funeral rose up like a tidal wave.
Jacques had left for the airport the second the service was over to make it back for work, missing the showdown with Sonya entirely, and once she’d fled, Mom and I didn’t stick around for long either.
We fought the whole drive back to the house. No, that wasn’t true. I fought. Years’ worth of feelings I’d chosen not to feel. Years of betrayal forcing them out.
“How could you keep this from me?” I’d shouted as I drove.
“She wasn’t supposed to come here!” Mom had said, then buried her face in her hands. “I can’t talk about this,” she’d sobbed, shaking her head. “I can’t.”
From then on, anything else I said was answered with this: I can’t talk about this. I can’t talk about him like this. I’m not going to talk about it. I can’t.
I should have understood. I should have cared more what Mom was feeling.
This was meant to be the moment that I became the adult, hugging her tight, promising everything would be okay, taking her pain. That’s what grown daughters did for their mothers. But back in the church, I’d torn in half and everything had spilled out of me into plain view for the first time.
Hundreds of nights I’d chosen not to cry. Thousands of moments I’d worried about worrying. That if I did it, I’d make things worse for my parents. That I needed to be strong. That I needed to be happy so I wouldn’t drag them down.
All those years when I was terrified my mother would die, I’d tucked every ugly thing out of sight to transform my life into a shiny window display for her benefit.
I’d made my parents laugh. I’d made them proud. I’d brought home solid grades, fought tooth and nail to keep up with Gus Everett. I’d stayed up late reading with Dad and gotten up early to pretend I liked yoga with Mom. I’d told them about my life, asked them endlessly about theirs so I’d never regret wasting time with them. And I hid the complicated feelings that came with trying to memorize someone you loved, just in case.
I fell in love at twenty-two, just like they had, with a boy named Jacques who was the singularly most beloved and interesting person I’d met, and I paraded our happiness past them as often as I could. I gave up on grad school to be close to them but proved I hadn’t really missed out on anything by publishing at twenty-five.
Look! I’m fine! Look! I have every beautiful thing you wanted for me! Look! This hasn’t affected me at all!
Look, they all live happily ever after. Again.
I’d done everything I could to prove that I was okay, that I wasn’t worrying. I did everything I could for that story. The one where the three of us were unbreakable.
On the drive home from the funeral, I didn’t want to be okay anymore.
I wanted to be a kid. I wanted to scream, to slam doors, to yell, “I hate you! You’re ruining my life!” like I never had.
I wanted Mom to ground me, then sneak into my room later and kiss my forehead, whisper, “I understand how scared you are.”
Instead, she wiped away her tears, took a deep breath, and repeated, “I’m not going to talk about this.”
“Fine,” I said, defeated, broken. “We won’t talk about it.”
When I flew back to New York, everything changed. Mom’s calls became rare, and even when they did happen, they hit like a tornado. She’d cyclone through every detail of her week, then ask how I was doing, and if I hesitated too long she’d panic and excuse herself for some exercise class she’d forgotten about.
She’d spent years preparing for her own death without any time to brace herself for this. For him to leave us and for the ugly truth to walk into his funeral and tear all our pretty memories in half. She was in pain. I knew that.
But I was in pain too, so much of it that for once I couldn’t laugh or dance any measure of it away. I couldn’t even write myself a happy ending.
I didn’t want to sit here in front of my laptop outside this house full of secrets and exorcise my father’s memory from my heart. But apparently I’d found the one thing I could do. Because I’d already started typing.
The first time she met the love of her father’s life was at his funeral.
MY LOVE AFFAIR with romance novels had started in the waiting room of my mother’s radiologist’s office. Mom didn’t like for me to go in with her—she insisted it made her feel senile—so I’d sat with a well-worn paperback from the rack, trying to distract myself from the ominous ticking of the clock fixed over the sign-in window.
I’d expected to stare at one page for twenty minutes, caught in the hamster wheel of anxiety. Instead I’d read 150 pages and then accidentally stuffed the book in my purse when it was time to go home.
It was the first wave of relief I’d felt in weeks, and from there, I binge-read every romance novel I could get my hands on. And then, without any true plans, I started writing one, and that feeling, that feeling of falling head over heels in love with a story and its characters as they sprang out of me, was unlike anything else.
Mom’s first diagnosis taught me that love was an escape rope, but it was her second diagnosis that taught me love could be a life vest when you were drowning.
The more I worked on my love story, the less powerless I felt in the world. I may have had to ditch my plan to go to grad school and find a teaching job, but I could still help people. I could give them something good, something funny and hopeful.
It worked. For years, I had a purpose, something good to focus on. But when Dad died, suddenly writing—the one thing that had always put me at ease, a verb that felt more like a place only for me, the thing that had freed me from my darkest moments and brought hope into my chest in my heart’s heaviest—had seemed impossible.
And okay, this was more of a diary written in third person than a novel, but words were coming out of my hands and it had been so long since that had happened I would’ve rejoiced to find ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY filling up the Word document a thousand times over.
This had to be better than that (????):
She had no idea whether her father had actually loved That Woman. She didn’t know whether he’d loved her mother either. The three things she knew, without doubt, that he’d loved were books, boats, and January.
It wasn’t just that I’d been born then. He’d always acted like I’d been born in January because it was the best month and not the other way around.
In Ohio, I’d largely considered it to be the worst month of the year. Oftentimes we didn’t get snow until February, which meant January was just a gray, cold, lightless time when you no longer had a major holiday to look forward to.
“In West Michigan, it’s different,” Dad had always said. There was the lake, and the way it would freeze over, covered in feet of snow. Apparently you could walk across it like it was some Martian tundra. In college, Shadi and I had planned to drive out one weekend and see it, but she’d gotten a call that their sheltie had died, and we’d spent the weekend watching Masterpiece Classic and making s’mores on the stove top instead.
I got back to typing.
If things had been different, she might’ve gone to the lakeside town in winter instead of summer, sat behind the wall of windows staring at the white-capped blues and strange frozen greens of the snowy beach.