Jill sighed deeply and muttered “fuck” under her breath. Stretching her long legs in front of her, she sat uncomfortably in a loveseat in her therapist’s office. A middle-aged, over-weight woman named Luanna stared at her patiently. Fussing with bit of soil under her fingernails, Jill struggled with the question she had just been asked.
“What would I have said to my dad when I was ten?” she paused. “‘Drop dead Dad!’ That’s what I would’ve said, if I had a voice back then,” Jill said at last.
“As a child, your response to his verbal abuse would have been to drop dead? Is that true, or does it feel true now?” the therapist asked.
“It’s true. It’s what I said in my head when he would scream and yell at me. I know what you’re getting at. When he told me I was worthless, you think I believed him. I didn’t. Not then, anyway,” Jill replied.
“You didn’t feel worthless then?” the therapist snatched Jill’s open-ended response.
Jill smirked. She’d been caught. After eight weeks of sessions, the therapist had talked her into a corner.
“I feel worthless now, sometimes. Less so since I started the meds. But yes, a sense of worthlessness has dogged me for years,” Jill stated.
The therapist didn’t respond. As if she were waiting for it, she swooped over to Jill with a tissue as soon as the first tear fell.
Sitting next to Jill on the couch, the professional asked, “How do you think this feeling of worthlessness affects the choices you make?”
“It makes the choices, it doesn’t affect them,” Jill said between sobs.
After another long pause, the therapist looked at her watch. The hour was spent. Jill sighed with relief.
“Same time next week?” the therapist queried.
“Oh yes indeed,” Jill said while she rose from the couch, mopping snot from her upper lip.
Luanna smiled knowingly, “You’re on the right track, Jill. You’re going to get there.”
Nodding, Jill took a quick look around the room. It was sage green with colorful throw rugs, comfortable chairs, an emerald loveseat, and a framed mandala. A small water fountain bubbled on Luanna’s desk. There were countless books resting in a bookshelf. If I’m to get better, this will be the place it happens, Jill thought while she closed the door behind her.
At home, Jill ate a solitary dinner at her kitchen table. Left-over Tai take-out tasted better than it looked while she wolfed it down. Marigold sat patiently at her feet, waiting to be cuddled on the couch while Jill watched TV or read a book. Quiet, solitude, and pet companionship, I might as well be eighty, thought Jill as she finished a plate of pad tai.
In the living room, she scratched Marigold’s head and read a raunchy vampire novel. Having abandoned literature years ago for good reads, she devoured the sex and violence. Finishing the last chapter, her eyes drooped and she yawned. Bedtime came early lately, as her anti-depressant meds made her sleepy in the evenings. Anticipating another satisfying night, she headed off to bed. Marigold followed close behind.
Early the next morning, Jill woke with a start to the sound of her telephone.
“Hello?” she asked irritably.
“Did I wake you?” Jill’s mother Margaret asked.
“It’s like five in the morning. You think?” Jill replied coolly.
“Don’t be sassy. I have some bad news for you,” Margaret said.
“What is it?” Jill was concerned. Pangs of guilt emanated from her solar-plexus as she waited for her mother to announce she had a horrible disease or her house had burned down. It had been months since she visited the old woman.
“Your father Steve is dead,” Margaret said.
“No shit? I’m glad it’s not you,” Jill replied.
“Well, me too. Anyway, I just received a call from his wife, I mean widow, Kelley…” Margaret didn’t finish her sentence.
After an uncomfortable pause, Jill asked, “Are you still there?”
Margaret was silently crying, but managed, “Yes.”
“Can you give me the details, or would you like to call me back later.”
“I’m alright. Sorry. It’s just sudden. I’d been thinking about calling him and burying the hatchet. We’re getting so damned old now…” Margaret trailed off.
“I didn’t know he was sick,” Jill said.
“He wasn’t. He died in a drunk driving accident on I5. It was a few hours ago, when the bars let out. He was driving too fast and traffic was stopped for another wreck. To avoid plowing into the car in front of him, he veered off to the shoulder and down an embankment. He struck a fence and was killed. No seat belt, the police said.”
“Oh Jesus,” Jill said.
“Jesus had nothing to do with it,” Margaret snapped.
“Apparently not,” Jill replied. “Should I call Kelley?”
“She said she’ll let me know when the funeral is. I don’t think she’s interested in talking to you right now,” Margaret said.
“Fair enough. I’ll talk to you later. Thanks for calling Mom.”
Jill hung up the phone and lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. “I didn’t mean drop dead now you old bastard! I had some things I needed to say to you,” she explained to no one. Rolling over, she tried to go back to sleep.
The funeral was three days later in a non-denominational Christian church in Gresham, a community fifteen minutes southeast of Jill’s house. Margaret drove down from Tacoma that morning to attend the service. Stiffly climbing out of her Buick, she looked every minute of her seventy years. Unlike Jill, she was short and fair-haired. With pretty blue eyes and a mild demeanor, it seemed nearly impossible she had birthed Jill.
“Are you going to wear that dress to the funeral?” Margaret gasped when Jill answered the door.
“In Asia, white is the traditional color of mourning,” Jill replied. She wasn’t sure if this was true or not. Their family wasn’t even Asian. She just liked the idea of wearing white to her father’s funeral because it was like putting up a white flag. She surrendered.
Margaret only grunted her disapproval. Little was said between them on the way to the church.
Jill felt a wave of panic as they parked in a cramped lot next to an old brick church with a steeple. Pathetic annuals stuck measly heads out of flower pots next to the front entrance. An older man she vaguely recognized smoked off to the side, by a bucket with sand used as an ash tray. Margaret nodded to the man and said hello. Jill kept walking.
Inside the church, Jill felt like she was having a near-death experience, as she saw dozens of people she had completely forgotten about. Seated in the first three rows of pews were members of Steve’s family she had not seen in years. His younger sister Sue was there, as was his ninety year old mother and many cousins. Steve’s two friends Mike and John came through a side door. When she was small, they used to come by the house and drink until midnight in the garage with her dad. Memories, memories, Jill thought bitterly.
Kelly and her family arrived last, walking down the aisle with some ceremony. The widow was middle-aged and thick around the middle. She wore her hair long with a spiral perm. Her two teenaged sons, Aiden and Quinn, were tall and handsome. With dark hair and amber eyes, they had a feral look familiar to Jill. Margaret’ eyes bulged.
“Good lord, Jill. They look just like you.” Jill studied her never-before-seen half siblings.
“Christ! They really do, don’t they?”
When Kelley and her children were seated, a minister took the pulpit and began to speak. Jill ignored the platitudes falling from the collared man’s tongue. There was nothing he could say to make this moment more tolerable. Jill continued staring at the rows of people. So many names forgotten from want of use. So many stories pushed away because they were sad and useless. Cousins and aunties, grandparents and uncles. All this kin, back from the dead. It had never occurred to her how many people were related to her by blood, but unrelated to her by irrelevance.
When everyone else began to stir, Jill knew the service had concluded.
“Ready to go Mom,” Jill asked.
“We’re going to the cemetery,” Margaret said.
Sighing, Jill nodded. Fuck, she thought, how long will this take?
Jill and Margaret drove in silence to the cemetery, which was a large site outside the city. Its manicured lawn glowed green from a distance. Perfectly symmetrical rows of grave markers glistened in the sun. Parking close to the street, so she could get away more quickly at the end of the service, Jill locked her car.
“I doubt anyone will break into your car at a cemetery,” Margaret chided.
“Why not?” Jill said.
Following the crowd to a freshly dug grave, Jill and Margaret found their places among the mourners. Wearing a white dress in the sea of black funeral clothes made Jill look like a dove in a murder of crows.
The minister read from the Bible while Kelley and her sons tossed soil onto the coffin. Bawling loudly into her hands, Kelley was surrounded by family. Hugging her, whispering in her ear, and holding her hands, the many people she spent her life with carried the widow through her darkest moment. Jill was fascinated by the displays of affection for this woman she could never tolerate.
When the service concluded, the clot of people dissolved. Most began walking back to their cars. Margaret and Jill stood by the open grave and stared at the coffin. Taking in the loss, which finalized now what occurred twenty years ago, the women grieved together. Holding hands, they allowed tears to drip from their chins.
Looking up at a robin soaring above her head, Jill felt for the first time that day the warmth of the sun. Holding onto the sun and the warmth and the robin’s ascension, Jill felt joy. She surrendered to it. Her dad was dead and she was living. The words she had for him, her rebuttal to his abuse, dissolved like salt on her tongue. Tasting tears, she said to her mother, “I’m happy.”
Margaret crinkled her eyebrows in confusion, and then shook her head. “Oh Jill, you say the damnedest things.”
Smiling at her prim, old mother, Jill put an arm around her shoulders. It would be absurd to argue with her. Truth is so often a damned thing, thought Jill.
Walking back to the car, they were intercepted by Kelley. The widow’s face was red and swollen from crying. Her black dress was crumpled and stained in the armpits. Unhinged in her grief, Kelley spoke.
“You didn’t know him after he was saved. He may have fallen off the wagon at the end, but Jesus had forgiven him. He was good to us. He was a good father and a good husband. There was love in our home.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Jill said. Surprised at Jill’s response, Kelley was muted.
Nodding to the widow, Jill led Margaret to the car. They were done.