The Mo(u)rning Letters - Chapter 9
BOOK REVIEWS, April 2011, by Jenny McWha
Last time… In Past Loves, Benjamin met an ex-girlfriend, Margot Palmer, in the park near his house. She remembers their past, from first seeing him to falling in love with him to having her heart broken. Thinking this meeting will just make her angrier at him, she was instead surprised to find that she was in a position to help him realize, but not solve, his complicated relationship and long-buried feelings for Beth, as well as his anxiety about Eleanor. In the end, seeing him again helped mend that part of her that had never really let him go.
The Mo(u)rning Letters
They Are All Strangers
Eleanor is awake when the sun comes up.
In fact, she has been awake the entire night; even after Susannah drifted off in the early hours of the morning. Eleanor’s bed feels too soft after Mayfair. Her pillow is not lumpy enough. Her blankets are too warm. She tosses and turns, listens as one of the babies begins crying and learns that Cornelia hums lullabies while she feeds it. The babies look so different now: they were still red and wrinkly when she was around them last. They feel like strangers.
They all feel like strangers now. She didn’t have one thing to say to her father on the ride home yesterday. When he had brought her to see her mother she had just given her a hug and a kiss and answered all her questions with yeses and nos. Benjamin had been different, she couldn’t put her finger on it. He had always been so constant. Now he wasn’t. Susannah had been wonderful and just as Eleanor remembered her, but they had been apart for so long. Did that change friendships forever? No, that was silly, Susannah would always be the same, her marvelous, funny, best friend. So why does Eleanor want to cry?
So when the sun comes up Eleanor is drinking black coffee in the kitchen in front of the glass French doors. If her parents knew she had picked up this habit in therapy they would be angry, but she doesn’t care. The sunrise is slow and steady, orange and yellow. Eleanor wishes she could feel its warmth right now, on her skin, like the kiss of summer. But summer is still far away. The sun does not make her feel that Beth is happy somewhere in some kind of afterlife, like she so desperately wants it to. She can’t even cry, she can only sip her black coffee and look out the glass doors in the kitchen.
When she finishes she puts her mug in the dishwasher and walks to the front hall. The keys for the car that belongs to her and Benjamin sit in the bowl on the mahogany desk. She realizes that she is leaving Susannah behind without telling her she is leaving. But Eleanor doesn’t want to wake her up, and Benjamin is here. Those two have to figure themselves out anyways. Despite Benjamin’s denials and Susannah’s refusal to say anything, Eleanor knows that they’re not done. She would help them out but has no desire to be involved in the romantic life of her best friend and her brother. With a sigh she closes the front door behind her, careful not to slam it too hard. Yesterday her father told her the babies were still sleeping fitfully, and she doesn’t want to wake the house up unnecessarily. She walks down the path towards the driveway, going through the motions, not allowing her mind to think what it wants. There was no food in the house: she should go to the grocery store. Only for the necessities, bread, milk, eggs, some canned beans, maybe some vegetables although none of them will be eaten. They need food in the house. Eleanor only had a can of soup to feed Susannah with last night, but though she heated it up, neither of them touched it.
It was strange coming back and remembering Susannah. It wasn’t like Eleanor had forgotten her when she went away. But she had been so wrapped up in Beth, Beth day and night, every therapy session, all she could think about was the loss of Beth; and the irony was that she had to agonize over Beth in order to get over her. Except for her letters, Eleanor had no room to think about Susannah. But coming home—Susannah is there, in the flesh, and Eleanor has to remember that she is not alone. Beth wouldn’t, couldn’t have died if she knew Eleanor would be left all alone. She has Benjamin, and Susannah, the best friend anyone could ask for. Eleanor learned in therapy the dangers of comparison, of measurement. Beth and Susannah are two different people, their only similarity being that they seem, seemed, to like Eleanor as much as Eleanor likes them.
It is a few minutes before Eleanor realizes that she has completely missed the turn that would have taken her to grocery store. It scares her, this not paying attention. Over the last few days, it seems that she has been walking through life, performing the motions without looking around her and really living. She is in her thoughts, and finds it hard to escape. But where once they were a refuge they are now a prison, and no matter how much she bangs against the bars no one is letting her out. She does a visualization exercise that Hannah taught her, picturing a big shining key right beside her, right beside her hand, she forces herself to reach for it—
A honk brings her back to reality. The traffic light is bright green, and she has made no move to go through the intersection. She hears the person behind her yelling, and she practically slams the gas to avoid the embarrassment. What if she hadn’t been stopped, if it had been a red light and not a green and she had gone right through? Into oncoming traffic? For a moment she relishes the idea, lets it twirl inside her brain before realizing she is doing it again. She wants to cry. Shaking, she turns onto a side street with no cars on it, going slowly, making sure to look thoroughly around at every intersection and stop sign like she was taught in driving school. There is no more important place to concentrate than in a car, she supposes, so she can use this for practice. Practice for living like a real person. I need to become a real person again. That’s what she had told Hannah the hour before her father picked her up. Hannah had hugged her and told her good luck.
Eleanor supposes if she is to work on concentrating she needs a goal, somewhere to drive to. She seems to be moving in the direction of the lake, so she points herself in that direction, trying to navigate on the tiny side streets a route that she is used to taking the major roadways for. Eventually she makes it and pulls into a parking spot beside a blue station wagon.
It is still early morning, and not a particularly nice day at that, with rolling black clouds and whitecaps on the waves. Hence, there are only a few stragglers on the boardwalk, closer to the developed, fancy part of the waterfront. There is a tall blonde woman walking a tiny dog who keeps weaving back and forth from the strength of the wind. She doesn’t look that happy, but beside her is a man, probably her husband, himself walking a German shepherd, straining to keep the dog from making a beeline to the water. Eleanor smiles at what people will do for love, both the human and animal variety. Further on there is a tired-looking mother with a double stroller, holding a baby while complementing another child who plays in the park, who screams and runs and leaps over every obstacle. An old man sits on a bench nearby, holding a cane and just watching the water with a blank look in his eye. Strewn at his feet is a mixture of bird seeds and bread crumbs, and a brave goose or seagull waddles over every once and a while to peck at the treat. Eleanor walks past them all, wanting the privacy that only wind and sand and water can afford her.
This length of waterfront isn’t very long, so she walks to the end. She remembers a set of rocks where she used to play, half submerged in water so she could perch on them in order to get particularly nice looking rocks without getting so soaked her mother would sigh over her. They are still half submerged but sit completely dry on the beach. Eleanor sits down, removes her shoes, and plunges her feet in with a muffled squeal. The lake has never been warm, no matter the season. But this, this icy coldness whips her back to reality faster than anything else can. Maybe she should consider taking ice baths every morning. She sees a tiny pink stone in a crevice of the rock and uses her pinky to pry it out. It’s perfectly round and is more brown than pink, but it’s something. She presses it into her palm.
Eleanor realizes that she is avoiding something. She doesn’t want to name it, not yet, but it’s almost impossible not to think about, sitting here. She skirts around it with every thought, but she has to face it. For this is the place, the very spot, that Eleanor always played with Beth. They had seen each other here the weekend of their first week of kindergarten. It had been the site of their first play date, where they swore undying friendship to one another, the place they first fought and where they first made up. Eleanor supposes her subconscious is playing a horrible trick on her, bringing her to this very spot where Beth first complained of a piercing headache before passing out on the sand. It was also where Beth told Eleanor that she had cancer. Eleanor doesn’t want to like it, wants these memories to taint this place forever. But there are too many happy memories here to really, truly, ruin to. Besides, she swore in therapy to stop doing this to herself, to push away anything and everything that reminds her.
It’s time to truly face it.
Eleanor talked a lot in therapy. There was a lot to talk about. But, somehow, she could never bring herself to talk about the funeral. Hannah always said it was okay, that she could describe it when she was ready. When she was leaving Hannah told her that she would have to face the rest on her own, but she believed Eleanor could do it. Eleanor isn’t so sure right now, sitting here with the sound of the waves lapping at her numb feet.
She starts with step one: pulling out her feet. Now that this is accomplished, she has no choice but to think to that week, that day, that phone call.
Eleanor hears the phone ring. She is sitting in her bedroom, trying to do math homework in anticipation of her final exam of the term. By tomorrow afternoon it would be Christmas vacation, and she would be able to see Beth every day. Even if Cornelia wouldn’t drive her on her way to work she could take the bus.
It is as if this thought damns her.
Her mother has put the phone down by now. Eleanor hears the click but hasn’t really listened to the conversation that came before. She doesn’t hear her mother move. Perhaps Eleanor’s grandmother just phoned again to nag her about how much work she does at the firm instead of doing her duty and looking after her children. Even though one of those children is moved out and engaged and the other two are fairly self-sufficient teenagers. Calls from Grandma Davies always puts Eleanor’s mother into a huff.
Eleanor banishes it from her mind and goes back to trying to figure out the value of “x.” She even half ignores the steps making their way up the carpeted stairs, towards her room. The problem is particularly tricky but Eleanor really enjoys math this year and gets a kind of high from solving algebra problems.
She hears her mother’s footsteps stop outside her door, a knock. Eleanor absently tells her to come in, still looking in her textbook. Her mother tells her she has something important to tell her. Eleanor, thinking it is as important as “Grandma is coming to dinner so you better clean your English notes off the dining room table,” continues to half listen as she struggles with the problem. She has just triumphantly written x=9 when it hits her what her mother just said.
“Eleanor, sweetie, it’s Beth. She just passed away.”
As Eleanor doesn’t get out of bed the next day, her mother takes it upon herself to enlist Cornelia and go shopping. They come home with a plain black dress, which Eleanor glances at before turning over and pretending to be asleep. She wishes sleep would take her, so she wouldn’t have to think anymore. She doesn’t want that either, though: what if she dreams of Beth, alive? Waking up, it would be like reliving it all over again. So she lies awake, for two days, until the morning of the funeral.
Cornelia and her mother bully her into the dress and a black cardigan because it is cold outside. She barely moves so they lift her arms, do up the zipper, brush her hair. Tears drip down her face the entire time. Benjamin holds her hand in the car but she barely feels it. She is going numb, on the inside and the outside.
Beth’s family is there, looking lost. Eleanor tries to put this into perspective, that they lost a daughter and a sister, while she only lost a friend. It was still Beth though, and a life without her looks terrifying from any perspective. Her mother is holding a little baby—an accidental pregnancy, they told Beth, but she believed they were replacing her before she even died. That had been a bad day for Beth, and she had told Eleanor the next time she saw her that she didn’t mean it, not at all. “I’m just sad I won’t get to see her grow up,” she said. The baby’s name is Stacey and she is too young to realize that someone is missing from her life now. She’ll realize later, and she’ll also realize that her birth and first year will always be tainted by the death of her eldest sister. The sister she will never know.
Benjamin supports Eleanor into the church, to the pew right behind the family one. “Come up with us,” Beth’s mother turns around to say, and, when Eleanor looks scared, “You are more family than most of the people here.” Beth’s mother is a proper mother. She stays at home and bakes cookies and always remembers to sign her children’s permission slips. She makes wonderful stews and roasts, and always invites Eleanor over for dinner. Sometimes Eleanor pretends this woman is her mother. It is a very nice dream. But now, now: she looks like a ghost, holding baby Stacey who has not made a sound this entire time. It scares Eleanor most, though, when she turns to smile at her and Eleanor sees relief in her eyes. It is not until much later that Eleanor comes to realize what this means, that having a dead child is in some ways horribly better than having a sick, dying child.
She does not remember anything from the service. Beth’s parents asked her to speak but she refused, crying. She couldn’t keep her composure in front of all these people. After, they go to the cemetery. It is cold and starting to dribble. “The perfect weather for a funeral,” Benjamin mutters, trying to be funny. No one laughs. Huge snatches of this half hour seem to be erased from Eleanor’s memory. She remembers throwing a flower, watching is fall far down into the ground where Beth will rest forever and ever. Then she remembers her mother nudging her and saying “we have to leave the family with their dead.” Eleanor looks up: everyone is gone except them. Baby Stacey is crying now, wailing. Benjamin who is still holding her hand, begins to drag her away. “No!” She wants to wail. “What about me? She’s my dead, too!” Her mother says they’ll come back tomorrow. They don’t.
Eleanor has not been back since that day. She always feels that she won’t be able to handle it, that she’ll just curl up and lay there until she dies. The rest of the year, when she is happy, she never thinks of Beth. It is only in the winter, when the sun goes away, when the thoughts come and don’t leave. Funny, this is the first time she has invited these very thoughts, let them have their say. She feels better now, and they aren’t repeating like they always do. They have kind of… drifted away.
She watches the water for a while, basking in the fact that her mind is finally blank. Hannah had always suggested they try meditation, but Eleanor found it nearly impossible in the sterile quasi-hospital environment. Here, with the rushing waves, the quack of geese, and the laughter of some small children far away, she feels right again, for the first time in months. She feels like herself. Because of this, she knows what she has to do next. A test, of sorts, to ensure this is not some fragile peace she has reached but real healing. Healing of that gaping wound left in her heart that day two and half years ago.
As the waterfront begins to fill with people, Eleanor walks slowly back to her car. She enjoys one last spurt of healing lake wind on her face before she gets in and starts the ignition. She knows where she is going like the back of her hand, though the route was usually walked rather than driven. A right here, a left there, one more right and she is there: in front of a house that looks oddly like hers, but with a brightly painted red door. There is a tricycle and a pair of abandoned roller blades in the front yard, and a tree house peeks over the roof from the backyard. Eleanor wonders if the working fridge, green shag carpeting, and mound of musty pillows still resides there for the little girls that live here to play with.
Eleanor doesn’t pull up the driveway, instead parking on the street. There are two unrecognizable cars in the driveway.
Eleanor feels like a new person, the very thing that makes her terrified to knock on the bright red door. She doesn’t have to, though—there is a newish looking doorbell that she brings herself to press. A little girl of about eight or nine opens it, yelling something incomprehensible down the hallway as she does so.
“Rosalyn?” Eleanor says.
The little girl looks as her, confused. “Umm, d’you wanna speak to Mr. or Mrs. Lewis?” She starts to back down the hallway, ready to scream again. Eleanor smiles.
“You don’t remember me, Rosalyn? I’m Eleanor, I used to be friends with your sister.”
Just then a woman comes down the hallway, asking Rosalyn who is at the door. When she sees Eleanor, though, she stops in her tracks. She looks very much the same as two years ago, the same smile and the same warm eyes and the same plumpness that feels so nice when you hug it. How Eleanor wants to step into those arms and be comforted. But she can’t, she is taking herself into her own hands and it is time to face all her demons.
Mrs. Lewis seems speechless, and a tear leaks out of her eyes before she walks forward, arms outstretched. “Eleanor, it’s been so long. I-I never thought we’d ever see you again.”
Eleanor can’t take it any longer and breaks down. This woman was like a mother to her and she just disappeared after Beth was gone. But she had thought that they wouldn’t have wanted her around, that they needed to be a family and Eleanor would not have been welcome. But she missed them all so much, and so she sobs into Anne’s shirt. It takes her about five minutes to calm down, after which Anne leads her to the living room, to her favourite squashy armchair. At least this has not changed.
It is too soon to say anything meaningful, and so Anne tells Rosalyn to get her sisters. Caroline runs in first, right to Eleanor. It is obvious that she remembers her as she launches herself onto Eleanor. “I’ve missed you so much, Eleanor,” she whispers in her ear.
Anne is laughing. “Wow, almost nothing breaks through Caroline’s teenage coolness. No one gets hugs from her in this house, anymore.”
Surprised, Eleanor looks at her, “Oh my goodness, you must be thirteen, now!”
“Mmm hmmm,” Caroline responds, looking proud, “I’m a real teenager now, Nora.” Anne rolls her eyes over her daughter’s head.
That’s when a very small girl tumbles in, stops at the sight of Eleanor, and runs to her mother. Eleanor smiles “And this must be—”
“Stacey,” Anne finishes, “a little older than when you saw her last.”
Somehow, magically, Eleanor does not flinch or cry or want to leave at this reminder of Beth’s funeral.
Stacey has emerged from behind her mother. “I’m three,” she proclaims loudly, “And I don’t know you.”
Eleanor laughs. “Well let me introduce myself. My name is Eleanor and I used to be friends with your older sister. Not Caroline or Rosalyn, though.” She doesn’t know how far to go.
“With Beth? She died when I was a baby. I don’t really remember her, but there are lots of pictures and stuff Mummy lets me look at while everyone is at school.”
Anne looks over at Eleanor, worriedly, but smiles when Eleanor looks nonplussed. Inside, though, Eleanor feels like her world should be falling apart. She waits for the familiar depression, the rockslides, the darkness to enfold her mind and not let go. It doesn’t come. This surprises her. Then it delights her. She looks at little Stacey, who is scarily reminding her of Beth in her kindergarten years. If this little girl can accept her sister’s death so easily, why it so surprising to herself that she can, too?
It’s as if Anne senses she needs to talk, and sends the girls away with the promise they can eat as many cookies as they want. Happily, they all dash out of the room.
“What brings you here, Eleanor, after all this time?”
Eleanor decides to be frank. “I just got back from a live-in therapy program. For grieving.” She waits for Anne to tell her she doesn’t deserve to be upset about Beth’s death after all this time, but it doesn’t come. “I couldn’t get over it, Anne. I would be fine, but the last two Decembers I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. This year, it just got out of control. I was depressed, and my parents decided I needed full-time help. One of the things I learned there, one of the things I did wrong, was grieving alone. I acted like no one knew my pain, that no one had lost someone, I isolated myself and I wouldn’t talk about it. My therapist reminded me that other people had lost her, too.”
There is a faint air of sadness around Anne. “I’m sorry you had to go through that, Eleanor.” She pauses for a few seconds before continuing. “I hope you know that Beth wouldn’t have wanted you to be going through this, back then or now. She, well, she would have hated us lingering over her for so long. Healing wasn’t instant for us, either, but we realized there was no turning back, and we had three lovely girls, here in the living world, that still needed us.”
Eleanor wipes back tears. “I know that now. It just took a very long time to realize it.” Anne sits beside her and hugs her again, patting her hair and making soothing noises.
“One of the many hard things about losing Beth, Eleanor, was losing you, too.” Eleanor lets this sink in and realizes that everyone lost her. Her parents, when their relationship crumbled. Benjamin, who tries to protect her but can’t keep everything at bay. Susannah, who stuck by her side when Eleanor refused to see her and kept looking back to a different best friend. Cornelia, who needed a sister more than ever but only got a zombie. Eleanor came home expecting to find family and instead found strangers. Today she expected to find strangers and found only family. It seems ironic. But soon she’ll home and hopefully, with a little work, find family again.
Anne finally pulls away when she has calmed down again. “Would you like to stay for lunch, Eleanor? Henry isn’t here but he should be back later—I know he’d love to see you. And I just unearthed some old albums, there are a ton of pictures of you I’m sure you’d love to laugh and cry some more over. There have been enough tears in this household, I should think I know how to deal with them by now.”
Eleanor doesn’t have to think about it. “Yes.”
Stay tuned for Chapter 10...
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