**Dear family, please know that this is a work of fiction built from fragmented memories of a horrible time in all of our lives, pieced together with shiny memories of happier times by admittedly grabby hands and a desperate wish for answers. If you must read, please do so with a grain of salt and without seeking reflections of yourself between the lines. Love, Me
a short story
There was a small package on the Burgess’ old church pew when Rhiannon trudged in the front door, cursing the stray wire on the “For Sale” sign in the front yard that left her with a roughed up leg and a mood to match. The box was hardly inconspicuous, old labels half-scratched off and more tape than probably all the Christmases she’d seen, combined. Separated from the rest of the mail by a daunting mountain of unfolded laundry, it sat alone on the worn wooden segment of bench, right in the spot her father had sat for years, first in mass and then on Sunday mornings with her little brother Nick, waiting for Rhiannon and her mother to finish getting ready to head to the newly remodeled church. Now, Nick was most likely moping in his room. Rhiannon knew this, having received her mom’s text that he was grounded again for fighting at school. Hearing her mom scurrying around in the master bedroom on the other side of the wall, Rhiannon knew it would be left to talk him through his problems and his dealings with his classmates, just like always. Mom had a “dinner meeting”, which they’d learned by now was mom code for a date with the boyfriend they weren’t supposed to know about. After a long day of crowded classes at the community college and scrubbing bug guts off tires, Rhiannon had hoped someone would give her a break.
Her curiosity getting the better of her, Rhiannon dropped her bag in the corner of the entry and sat next to the mummified box. She hoped it was something for her, something that would make the fact that she was stuck at home, celebrating her birthday by washing cars and studying the biology of food with high school drop-outs and retirees while Caitlin and all her other friends were partying it up at a real college more bearable. Turning the box over and over again until she found Bonnie’s chicken scratch, Rhiannon saw her own name chiseled into the dirty brown cardboard under the layers of clear plastic and loads of stamps.
Rhiannon looked up when she heard her mother clear her throat. She had emerged from the bedroom and was eyeing the package somewhat disdainfully as her fingers secured earrings without the aid of the gilded hall mirror. Behind her mom’s head, Rhiannon’s reflection glared back, a face made of all angles, like her mother’s, or her father’s towards the end, limp locks of dirty blonde hair stuck to her forehead.
“How nice of her to at least care enough to remember your birthday.” Her mom had made her opinion of Bonnie’s prolonged escape perfectly clear. Rhiannon wasn’t quite sure how she felt, but if she had to guess, she’d say it was something like jealousy. Two pair of dark eyes rolled, one at the box, one at the back of the other’s head.
“She’s not coming, is she?” Rhiannon asked, but no answer came. Her mom had already retreated to the bedroom, wrestling her dark curls into a teased and tamed chignon.
She hadn’t realized how tightly she’d been holding to her cousin’s half promise to, maybe, be there for Rhiannon’s big two-oh, having missed the one before. The whole “dad” thing happened, and when it was over, their Nana and Papaw had moved to Texas to live with Rhiannon’s Aunt Janie and their other grandchildren. Bonnie, after spending some time with her family, kissed them all goodbye, canceled her registration to her final year of classes at the local liberal arts college, and took off for God knows where.
Nick had thought Bonnie was “chasing her happy”, whatever that meant.
Rhiannon’s mom said she was just selfish.
Rhiannon didn’t think Bonnie quite knew what she was looking for, except maybe a way of avoiding or outsmarting the disease she believed she was destined to have. It was the same disease that killed the image of Rhiannon’s perfect dad, and in the end, took her dad himself.
If asked the name of the coolest, awesomest person in the world, a young Rhiannon would have responded “my daddy is, ’cause he’s my daddy and I love him.’” Growing up, Rhiannon thought her dad was Aladdin’s genie, made human, and in all his awesomeness, he could do no wrong. High school freshman Rhiannon, however, thought otherwise. Sure, she’d been embarrassed when he’d chased her through the mall one Saturday during seventh grade, He’d come to pick her and her friends up and had followed them, running all crazy and floppy like, mangling his words like he was mentally challenged. But that was nothing in light of the fact that her new best friends were not allowed to stay the night at her house. Once their mothers had heard her dad’s slurred speech and seen his stumbling gait, no longer faked for humor, they declared him obviously perpetually drunk and unable to supervise their impressionable children. He was still her dad, and she still loved him, but still she wished he’d be less worried and huggy, more crazy and fun, just try to talk normal.
Rhiannon wished, too, that she could rely on the old ways of curling up behind the laundry basket in the back of her closet, the cordless house phone pressed to her ear and her voice low as she talked it out with Bonnie. That was the way it used to be, when things like late night police calls and newly started periods rocked their young worlds and they didn’t want their parents to hear or know they heard. But Bonnie no longer answered the phone. Was she mad that Rhiannon had ditched her on the day of their traditional trip to the zoo to spend the afternoon in her best friend Caitlin’s new swimming pool? Or that she’d brought Caitlin along to Six Flags when she and Bonnie had planned on just the two of them going? No, Rhiannon decided, it was because Bonnie’d found her crowd in high school all ready, and they were just too different, and maybe a bit below where Rhiannon wanted to be. She guessed that Bonnie just knew that, so Rhiannon made new friends, and moved on.
But she still missed having her pseudo-big sister to talk things out and make things seem better than they really were. Maybe phone calls weren’t the answer anymore, but face time didn’t seem to be working any better. It wasn’t like she could stop and talk to Bonnie in the hall; she was close enough to losing her friends and her place in the popular crowd now that her dad was all crazy in a bad way, and senior or not, Bonnie was in no way cool. Bonnie’s group of friends occupied the weird zone of the lunch room, where no popular kid dare venture.
Rhiannon tried to bring the topic of her dad up in the car when the newly licensed-to-freedom Bonnie would shuttle her to and from schools on non-practice days, but Bonnie had changed and was now silent and brooding. She barely said a word, unless the grunts of acknowledgment or muttered, unintelligible and unrepeated comments counted. Mostly, she’d just turn up the music of whatever mix-cd she’d made that week and get Rhiannon there and out as soon as she possibly could. When Rhiannon figured out which button controlled the volume and was so so sick of silence and annoying music, she took a chance and turned it down and asked anyway.
“Dad won’t play basketball with me anymore. And he talks weird, like all slurry and stuff. You know, how all the guys were at Aunt Janie’s wedding reception. You don’t think he’s an alcoholic or something, do you?”
Bonnie shifted in the seat, her eyes darting between the rearview and side mirrors. Her fingers alternated between swatting her dark blonde waves out of her eyes and off her neck and drumming out a random, jerky movement on the steering wheel, but she said nothing. Rhiannon tried again.
“Have you heard Nana or Papaw say anything? I mean, you’d tell me if you did, right?”
Bonnie stiffened, floored the gas before slamming on the break to avoid running the light. As Rhiannon jerked forward against her seatbelt, she watched Bonnie’s lips part, close, once, twice, before she sighed, grunted some reply, and her hand shot out and the loud, annoying music filled the car again.
Three years later, a newly eighteen-year-old Rhiannon sat curled up on the old church pew in her parents’ room. She watched as the hospice ladies made their laps around her dad’s hospital bed, placing tubes here, needles there, trying to mentally convince her dad to meet her eyes. Her meditation was interrupted by Bonnie’s groan from the floor as she hid her face against Rhiannon’s knee. Rhiannon wanted to push her off, to kick her away and scream that it’s all her fault, but she knew Bonnie didn’t do this, not really. Her cousin may have been the confidante of the family, the keeper of more secrets than just Rhiannon’s, but she was still just a girl, and it wasn’t her choices that led them to this place, this room, this dreaded now. Instead, Rhiannon tried to push away the overwhelming anger she felt and looked around the darkened room to see what Bonnie had turned from.
Nick, now ten years old and wide-eyed, cackled from his spot on the foot of their dad’s bed, and through the phone at Bonnie’s ear, Aunt Janie could be heard squawking, demanding to know if something had already happened. As Rhiannon’s dad looked on in a sleepy mock horror, Uncle Jim’s ex-wife Sarah was doing her best impression of her father’s happy dance, although it looked a lot more like she was flailing. Glancing over, she saw that her Uncle Jim’s gaze on Sarah was somewhat adoring. Nana, however, was horrified and demanded that Sarah sit back down.
“This is the time to be serious, Sarah, for once in your life,” Nana reprimanded. “Instead of being idiots, we should be praying for an Easter miracle to save John!”
Rhiannon’s attention was drawn back to Bonnie at her knee, who was explaining to her mother on the phone: “Hospice is done. It’s starting. Aunt Sarah’s just trying to make Uncle Jim happy, but Nana’s pissed and determined that prayer will actually fix this.”
Rhiannon could actually feel the daggers in Nana’s glare at Bonnie. Nothing could fix this, but she wished that ignoring it with all her might would somehow turn back time the way her Nana’s prayers never could. Rhiannon turned her attention April’s torrential downpour.
Growing up, April had been her favorite month of all: Easter baskets and brightly wrapped birthday boxes, flowers and baby animals in the yard, the perfect mix of snow days and warm afternoons in the park with dad and days upon days off school. Even in junior high, when teachers decided to play catch-up and train students for high school, there were still school dances and season openers with dad.
Fourteen-going-on-fifteen brought a different kind of April, and for the first time in her life, Rhiannon wished the month would just disappear off of the face of the calendar.
April started off with tricks, but without the treats. She should have known things were changing when, for the first time, her best friend Caitlin was both grounded and in detention for her yearly silly little trick. Apparently, the teachers didn’t find anything funny about sitting in Krazy Glue. Instead of spending the afternoon as planned—the first annual silly string, water balloon fight at Caitlinʼs house, Rhiannon was stuck on the couch as Nick repeatedly stuck fake spiders in her hair and cackled as only maniacal seven-year-old could. Rhiannon flicked them off, all the while absent-mindedly dragging the pad of her thumb down her nails, flicking imaginary dirt away. At least channel fifty had finally contracted the old TGIF shows from grade school. Eric Matthews as a stalker—posing as a woman, a pastry in the café, and a potted tree—almost made the rubber bug infestation worth it. Boy Meets World made almost everything better. Almost.
But dinner always follows TV time, and her mom had forgotten about April, and the table was decorated with stacks of paper about clinics for mayonnaise instead of pastel eggs and ceramic chicks. Her dad was quiet, but that didn’t bother Rhiannon. Her dad never talked much anymore, not since his mouth got all weird and his saunter to the kitchen every evening had turned into more of an awkward shuffle with white, bony knuckles gripping every surface along the way.
Nick jabbered on about whatever pranks were pulled in the classroom, filling the silence, but Rhiannon still noticed. Their mom wasn’t talking, other than to “uh huh” and “okay” when Nick required, but for the most part, stared at her potato soup as though there was some other world living in the mix. After dinner was done and Rhiannon had helped her mom through the robotic motions of clearing the table, dragging her feet all the while, they sat back at the table, silent and blinking, her momʼs paper centerpieces spread across the wood surface. The only sound in the room was the distant TV, where Rhiannon could just make out the actors ranting and raving about crazily spelled names like “Topangela” ruining their lives. She got tired of watching Nick make faces to dispel the awkward silence, and dropped her eyes to the Mayo paperwork. One sheet stood out to her. How to tell your children th—. It cut off there, another page overlapping, but her parents were never this weird unless it was time to turn the dinner table into Father Rikʼs creepy, dark confessional.
“Tell us what?” Rhiannon asked. Her momʼs head snapped up and her dad gave some sort of grunt; maybe a cough, or a laugh. “How to tell your children what?”
No one answered. No one, that is, but Nick, who never really understood the tension of grown-up secrets. He immediately yelled “Disney World!”, as though it was obvious, before going into a one-boyʼd conversation of all that he would say when he met Mickey. This distracted their Mom and Dad long enough for Rhiannon to reach out and grab the offending sheet of paper. By the time her Mom noticed, she was reading aloud: “How to tell your children that youʼve been diagnosed with amy… amyo—”
“Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” her Mom finished for her.
Confusing medical words are never good. Samʼs dad had confusing words like that when they found him unconscious at the middle of the floor. Sam only saw his dad once more after that day: at the funeral wake.
Into Rhiannon’s mind popped the distant memory of Bonnie’s Aunt Marie’s wake. Marie’s family had spoken in hushed tone to Rhiannon’s parents about how Marie’s disease was un-diagnosed, even though the doctor named it letters: A L S. Those letters, easier said than the long strange words they represented, named a diagnosis that was a last resort when other letters, like M S, and M D, ran out. At eleven, Rhiannon hadn’t understood much of what the grown-ups said, but she did understand one thing: those three letters, now glaring off another of the pages on the table, were a death sentence, with no real chance or cure.
“Meaning?” Nick didn’t have that memory. He’d spent the day of Marie’s wake with the babysitter and now didn’t understand.
A grimace crossed their dadʼs thinned face. Their mom sighed. “Dad has Lou Gehrigʼs disease.”
“The baseball player on the den wall?” Nick got it, voice quieter, the blush of excitement replaced by wide eyes. “But he died.” No answer from anyone other than their momʼs fidgeting in the chair. “Is Daddy gonna die?”
Dad, all slurred and mushy: “Maybe, but not right now.”
Rhiannon: “April Fools?”
Within days, her dad had to have a wheel chair to keep from stumbling. Even though it had a funny sounding horn to honk and he could zoom around and play basketball again, it meant that sooner or later her dad would have scary looking tube called a trache, and eventually, there wouldnʼt be a dad around at all. When Rhiannon finally came to terms with what was happening to her life, she had to tell someone. She tried to tell Bonnie, but for some reason, she didnʼt seem too bothered by the news. Rhiannon hoped that it was just Bonnie being Bonnie and keeping everything locked inside. She couldnʼt tell Caitlin, who was her very best friend, but who also believed that there was no such thing as secrets amongst the sisterhood of the junior varsity cheerleading squad.
She told Sam, whoʼd been her secret boyfriend since October. He had to be secret because someone somewhere in the history of the Burgess family had a baby in high school and Rhiannon’s dad made a rule of no dating until sixteen, not even group dates. Their friends knew, and Bonnie knew because Bonnie always knows, but no adults could ever know. It was fun, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes in Romeo + Juliet, only without the poison and guns.
Samʼs dad died at Christmas from what his mom said was an intracerebral hemorrhage, but Sam said it was a stroke. He said his dad had called and left a slurred message on his mom’s voice mail, but by the time she got home, he was dead that the foot of the stairs. So, Sam understood. Sam understood what it felt like to not want to talk about it, think about it, even know it at all, if it were possible.
Rhiannon’s mom and dad knew that she and Sam hung out a lot, but thought that he was her history partner. Most times he wasn’t, but that April actually he was. She told her parents they were going to the library to work on a project, but they’d finished the report the day before and instead convinced Bonnie to drop them off at his house. Sam’s mom wasn’t home and he had movies to watch in his room and everything was nice up on his loft bed. Until everything wasn’t. Until Rhiannon rolled too far and fell to the hardwood floor below and her arm was in a different shape than how the straight bones of the school’s science room skeleton showed it should be.
They panicked. This wasn’t something that a couple Tylenol could make all better. There was no way Sam could get her to the hospital on his five-speed dirt bike. He would have borrowed the car with his learner’s permit, but his mom had the only car. Rhiannon tried calling Bonnie, over and over, but there was no answer, only voicemail. Sam’s mom couldn’t get off work and all that was left was her parents.
If her Mom and Dad didn’t believe the story of the library being too noisy and crowded and Rhiannon tripping over the cat on the stairs when studying at Sam’s house instead, they didn’t say anything. She and Sam were still allowed to study together, until Sunday. Her parents were hosting a family dinner for her fifteenth birthday. Rhiannon had a bring pink cast, and everyone was taking turns decorating it with a fat black Sharpie. Aunt Janie was in town for Rhiannon’s birthday and the Easter Holy Week. Janie’s boys wrote their favorite jokes, full of rude little boy humor, near Rhiannon’s elbow, while the three generations discussed Easter plans with her mom: Nana, Aunt Janie, Bonnie. Then the boys were done and laughing so hard they’d snort and it was their sister’s turn.
Bonnie was quiet as she etched dark flowers and paper chains from childhood into the pink wrapped plaster. She accidentally knocked Rhiannon’s arm and winced. “Does it hurt?”
Rhiannon thought about it and answered, “Not really.” The pain meds were good. “It itches, though… It’s really annoying.”
Bonnie snorted and mumbled, “Maybe now you’ll learn not to make out with your boyfriend on top of things.”
Bonnie’s jab was so quiet that Rhiannon almost didn’t hear it, and she felt safe to joke without others hearing and it felt good to giggle with Bonnie again.
But her dad heard.
It was one of Aunt Sarah’s favorite stories, mainly because it was one of the first family “events” she missed after her divorce from Uncle Jim. Often, at get-togethers with the Burgess family, she’d start on about how she wished she’d been there to see it: Rhiannon’s dad, sputtering, spitting mad in his motor scooter, driving circles in their foyer, waiting for the boy to show up. He couldn’t wait to lay into Sam for “leading his baby girl down that road”.
The Burgess family crowded, cowered, around the hospital bed in makeshift seating in the otherwise meticulously and cheerfully decorated and coordinated master bedroom. The hospice workers sat along the far wall, observing from the old wood kitchen chairs and tall wrought iron bar stools. Fr. Rik near the headboard in Rhiannon’s pink swivel desk chair, Uncle Jim and Aunt Sarah squeezed together upon the low piano bench. Rhiannon sat stiffly on the cold church bench beside her Papaw, as Nick’s left feet swung off the side of their dad’s bed. Bonnie was curled up on the Notre Dame beanbag at Rhiannon’s feet, her head resting against Nick’s right shin. Their Nana sat at the foot of the bed in the ancient rocking chair she’d handed down when Rhiannon was born. Rhiannon’s mother remained standing at her dad’s side.
Rhiannon’s mom had seen the spark of fear Rhiannon had missed in her dad’s eyes as the morphine drip began to take effect, his body relaxing but his mind still racing as fast as ever. Nick’s tentative laugh arose as their mother began to tell funny little anecdotes about their dad. Rhiannon clung to the words like a buoy in the deep end of the wave pool as stories were told in turn by her Mom and Uncle Jim, Bonnie and Papaw even joining in.
How he met her mom, telling her she looked just like a guy he knew.
How he was the class clown from second grade through college graduation and had a seat reserved only for him in his high school in-school-suspension room.
How he took Bonnie and Rhiannon hunting for the “mythical” snipe, leaving them out in the field waiting for the fearsome creature by themselves, in order to sneak back and scare them, only to be scared himself when they walked to the neighbor’s house, leaving him to search for them for hours as they enjoyed cookies and hot cocoa.
How he actually got into a full-blown argument with one of Nick’s little friends who said that Star Wars was stupid.
How he’d found out Bonnie’s first boyfriend’s name (Brett Buhts), and had called the poor thirteen-year-old boy things like “Seymour” and “Harry” every time he saw him until the boy told Bonnie he didn’t like her enough to deal with it.
How he paraded around the hospital with a doctor’s latex glove over his head, the tip of his nose caught and pulled up in the lip of it, looking like some sort of hybrid between pig and rooster, when the nurse couldn’t find any ice cream for the freshly tonsil free Nick.
How he claimed to hate their old dog Penny but gave her mouth to mouth when she fell over in the yard, scolding the dog for just giving up on life.
But no one wanted to touch the story Aunt Sarah kept trying to coerce them into telling, the night the caused silence to fall between Rhiannon and Bonnie for over four months.
That Sunday afternoon, after a tense family dinner, Sam had come over as planned to study for a test. Only hours earlier, Rhiannon had planned to tell her father off, clinging to the romantic notion of forbidden love. That was before her dad pulled the one card that worked.
“I have to know I can trust you, Rhiannon.” He’d told her. “The doctor said that stress makes things progress faster” (Rhiannon didn’t know if this was true or not) “ and if I can’t trust you, I’ll worry myself to an extra-early death.” He’d topped that off with, “You were always my perfect child.”
The guilt card. The one that Rhiannon couldn’t fight, her desire to always have her father’s approval greater than her puppy love for Sam and the thrill of their secret relationship.
That didn’t stop Rhiannon for hating Bonnie for ratting her out. Sam’s love for her had now turned to hate and her heart was broken. He told Rhiannon he never wanted to see her again, and he had told Bonnie in no uncertain terms that if she crossed him again, he’d make the rest of her senior year “a high school hell”. Bonnie didn’t seem too scared of the freshman. Even a year later, when sixteen-year-old and “legal” Rhiannon and Sam were again talking and later rekindling their relationship, he refused to go anywhere near Bonnie, when she was home from college at family events.
Their second relationship didn’t last much longer. They broke up again after a more than slightly tipsy sixteen-year-old Rhiannon was brought home by an equally drunk Sam from a party. In his intoxicated state, Sam unthinkingly told Rhiannon’s father what he thought of him, which really was not much. The feeling was mutual. Angry at Sam for cursing out her dad, who was now almost entirely reliant on others Rhiannon dumped Sam the following Monday in a very public display in the lunch room. Rhiannon wasn’t known for her subtlety.
Since then, they had hardly talked more than a few words in passing. But on her dad’s last afternoon, in the hours between her last serious talk with her dad and the beginning of hospice’s process, she snuck away from her family and went the only place she could think of: to Sam. Caitlin just couldn’t take things seriously enough, and Sam was the only one who knew what it felt like. That didn’t mean he wanted to be a part of the day. Rhiannon had to beg and plead until his mom was so moved she made Sam “at least give the poor girl this.”
Now Rhiannon was stuck the crowded room at her dad’s bedside while Sam was off wandering the house somewhere. Her dad’s eyes were shut, fluttering softly as though in a dream, his chest still rising and falling from the study pumping of the trache. Rhiannon could hear her Aunt Sarah warbling some unknown lullaby, her voice breaking on a note as the hospice nurse tested Rhiannon’s dad’s pain sensitivity, pushing her index nail up under his own. His hand flinched away and the nurse muttered calmly, “We’re not quite there yet.” Bonnie re-uttered the words into her cell phone, keeping Aunt Janie informed even though she couldn’t make it in from Texas in time due to an airline strike.
Rhiannon had seen the last goodbye between her dad and her Aunt Janie, which occurred over video chat on her Nana’s laptop. Her aunt was the only one who never actually begged him not to do it. Instead, she simply stared him down as well as she could through a computer screen and grit out “I’ll never forgive you if you do this. It’s not all about you, you know, John. You’re doing this to your family too: to your kids, to mom, to me.”
Her dad’s response, now spelled out by slowly and sloppily drawing out letters in the air for others to read: “I know.” And “Yes you will.”
The private goodbye Rhiannon shared with her father was even more simple, though nowhere near easy. She lay at his side, clinging to him, her lips and tongue sealed against telling him how wrong this felt, as he held her loosely, but as tight as he could, their secret “I love you” tapped out over and over on her back, his shirt damp with her tears as she tapped his shoulder in return.
Now Rhiannon sat, staring at his fingertips, waiting for them to tap out something else, maybe something like “Stop”, but they never moved. Not even when the lead nurse stuck her nail up under his again and pinched the hidden skin. Rhiannon kept staring at his bony fingers as the nurse nodded to another one of the others, who silently made her way over to power down the breathing machine attached to his trache.
The moment of silence was broken by the screech from the machine before the nurse quickly unplugged it. Soon Fr. Rik’s prayers filled the room, a string of Hail Marys and Our Fathers wrapping around the occupants as they counted the rosary down to the end.
Sam was banging around in the kitchen, most likely trying to break up the awkwardness of being out there by himself, and Rhiannon clinched her eyes and held her breath, wishing she could sink away or turn it all off. She clung to the sounds of cereal clattering in her momʼs steel mixing bowl, the fridge rattling open and sealing shut, pretending for a moment she was out there instead of in here. The lone kitchen chair scraped on the tile, and the sound of paper crinkling made her sure that Sam was looking at the newspaper Nana had brought and abandoned on the table, the post-it filled with her tiny script begging John to see that there was still a chance.
Rhiannon ached to rip out the IV and peel open her dad’s eyes, to scream and make him look at her, to listen, really listen, the words sheʼd never say: Donʼt do this. Dad, just give it another chance. Daddy, you lied. But even though he wasnʼt the dad sheʼd always known, she was still the daughter heʼd raised, and a promise was a promise, no take-backs after giving your word. Even if he promised always to tell her the truth about his disease… and had intermingled that truth with lies.
Her dad had tried the alternative therapies before; treatments that were already available and not just a hope on the horizon, like the stem cell research in Nana’s newspaper. Heʼd taken part in revolutionary drug trials, but they brought no change, so he believed that he was always part of the placebo group in the double-blind tests. He spent a year on a disgusting raw food diet that drained Rhiannon’s college fund into the pocket of a so-called specialist. He took dozens infusions of chelation therapy, which Rhiannon couldnʼt begin to say what, exactly, it was. All this was intended to wipe the toxic metals from his system, which some claimed to be the cause of his illness. Her Nanaʼs retirement fund trickled away to cold laser therapy that researchers claimed was a possible cure, but turned out to only be treatment for pain which he was only experiencing from the chelation, and just led to further degeneration of his nerves and muscles. Nickʼs fledgling college fund went to a so-called miracle worker: a medicinal tea from china that turned out to be the simple green tea one could buy for nearly nothing in the oriental grocery store down the street. And when her dad was far beyond able to work, was no longer mobile or able to care for himself in the simplest and most private ways, her mom’s paychecks went entirely to physical therapy for sunken muscles and an in-home nursing staff .
The worst, though, was the bees. Desperate for something, the family had convinced Rhiannon’s dad to try one more treatment that the holistic “medicine man” had recommended, stating multiple testimonials of success. The bee lady would show up once a week for over a month. In the seclusion of the tiny sparse hall bath, she would lay her bees all over Rhiannon’s dadʼs body, coaxing them to sting him. After, she returned them to their jar slowly picked out the stingers one by one. Rhiannon had watched only once, the tiny, windowless room closing as the angry buzzing filled her ears and her fatherʼs face contorted in perpetual wince. His puffy, pained skin afterward overrode any momentary remission in nerve damage. The swelling always lasted longer anyway. After a month, her dad was done, with it and with everything.
No, there would be no convincing her dad to come back, change his mind, try again. The man who believed that giving up was never a solution and “canʼt” should be entirely eradicated from the English language, scratching it out on the contraction list in the back of her and Bonnieʼs pocket dictionaries, was gone. That dad had died long ago, maybe even before Rhiannon first knew. The dad who was left no longer saw the use in trying.
Now, like in that other room, the walls were closing in, the buzzing still in Rhiannonʼs ears, a drone of raspy breaths and prayers and pounding heart. Even if sheʼd known the truth, even if sheʼd said “no” instead of “ok”, there would have been no way to keep him from throwing in the towel and giving up the fight.
Only days before their father’s final day, Rhiannon and Nick’s imposed family movie night had been interrupted when their dad manned the clicker, finally managing to turn the film off. In his slow way of writing on the air, he told his wife and children that he was done. He told them what he wanted and how he wanted it done. He showed their mom the flier his nurse had given him, explaining how everything would work, and told her to book it for Friday… three days from then. Nick ran up to his room and slammed the door, refusing to come out until their dad changed his mind. Her mom refused, tearfully scolding him for being so ungodly selfish, before calling his own mother, telling their nana to come and change his mind. She would later concede and support him, however unwilling she may have been.
Rhiannon said nothing. Even April Fools wouldn’t cover this, and anyway, she’d stopped hoping for jokes long ago. She had known it was coming eventually. Three and a half years of fighting and nothing changing in any way except for from bad to worse. She knew her dad’s fear of not being able to communicate or worse, not going on his own terms, and, with as fast as the disease had taken over, she was sure there wasn’t much time before those fears came true.
Much later, when nightmares tore her from her bed to find the sun peeking over the horizon and her mom was cuddled in bed with ten-year-old Nick, Rhiannon crept down the stairs and to her father’s bedside. He started awake when she took a seat at his side, his eyes regarding her warily.
“Are you sure about this?”
One tap on the bed rail. Yes.
“I mean– I mean, really really sure, Dad.”
One tap, harder this time, his brow crinkling in an angry frown.
“Okay, okay.” She paused as he stared her down, his gaze still strong even as every other strength was beyond faded. “But can’t you just wait. Just a little longer. Maybe something will change. Maybe that doctor in –”
Two taps, weaker but angrier. No. An incline of her dad’s head to help her lift his other hand to eye level as he draws the letter N-O-W.
N-O-W. He paused, his hand flopping loose from his wrist as he rested his hand against the rail. Weakly, he slid his hand over to still Rhiannon’s hands against the cold metal, her thumb still pressed against the cuticle of her right ring fingered, poised to flick off. P-L-E-A-S-E.
She tried to argue for more time, but in the end, Rhiannon know the game was lost. Three and a half years was a short time; she knew she couldn’t expect her dad to last much longer. Fighting back tears, she asked in a broken voice, “What do you want me to do?”
His knuckles nudged towards the cell phone in her hoodie pocket. C-A-L-L. When Rhiannon didn’t move to do so, his eyes pleaded as he struggled to spell out: F-O-R M-E, before his hand dropped out to tap out their “I Love You” on her arm.
Lips pursed and throat choked, she dialed the number. Eyes clenched she hit send, his fingers reaching to loosely clasp hers. A long talk with the Hospice director and the first wait began.
In the hours leading up to hospice’s arrival, Rhiannon had been able to at least try and make herself believe that she wasnʼt waiting for anything at all, that she was just spending another Saturday afternoon up in her room. The afternoon sun that had been trailing in through the key hole patches in the faux bamboo shades, casting a glittery sheen on the damp, sticky petal pink covering on her toes, her legs stretched out at opposite ends of a V, like Caitlinʼs in her short pleated skirt and shiny white sneakers when suspended in the air for a moment, high above the gymnasium floor. But now that sun had disappeared and her ears were filled with the steady drumming of rain against the glass pane, she unscrewed the brush from the bottle of polish once more and turned her attention to her fingers.
Rhiannon had told her mom that she was getting out of the way of everyone who had come over to say goodbye and taking a moment to breathe, but really, she was just killing time—no, not killing. Not really anyway. Just slowly putting time to sleep, like she now knew her old dog Penny had been. She learned long ago that dogs donʼt really go to Happy Sunshine Farm and neither does time, nor people.
Although her door was shut and her tv on, Rhiannon could still hear the voices filtering from downstairs. She was pretty sure she could hear Bonnie in there now; Bonnie, who never cried, sounded all raspy and high-pitched, and Rhiannon tried to make out what she was saying through the paint and plaster and drywall, but all she could make out was something about sunshine and red balloons and Aunt Janie.
Rhiannon didnʼt really want to listen to everyone getting upset over her dad, so she turned her attention to Sam. Her mom had allowed him in her room for special circumstances, but he was completely immersed in a particularly unbeatable round of Pokemon on Nickʼs beat up and long forgotten Nintendo Game Boy, and didnʼt even notice when she nuzzled into his shoulder. Or elbowed him in the ribs. Some boyfriend… ex-boyfriend… ex-ex-boyfriend? He was probably only there because his mom made him come. She hoped it really was because he cared, but she couldnʼt be sure at this point. Tired of the constant internal debate, Rhiannon turned up the volume as Mr. Feenyʼs retirement party stumbled along on the screen and turned her attention back to the soft pink gloss as she carefully began to draw the paint across her fingertips, the tip of her tongue peeking out the corner of her mouth, her brow furrowed.
Sam may not have noticed Rhiannonʼs attempts to gain his attention, but he was the one to hear the near silent tapping on the door. With a grumbled “Iʼll be in the kitchen”, he pushed off the bed and brushed past Bonnie, who had just poked her head in.
Bonnie toed off her battered sneakers and sank down on at the foot of the bed, pretzeling herself in the small space between Rhiannonʼs drying toes and the clothes-draped bed frame. Her eyes remained glued to the small tv in the corner as her fingers rattled a sharpie against the notebook sheʼd brought in. “How long is left?”
Rhiannon shrugged. “Plays-with-Squirrels hasnʼt shown up yet, so maybe 15 minutes?”
“No, I mean until hospice gets here and starts.”
“Oh.” She glanced half-heartedly at the clock. “Well, still, probably 15 minutes.”
But those fifteen minutes, which always seemed to tick away so slow, melted away faster than Rhiannon could bear. The T.V. was shattered by the shrill door bell, and she looked up to see Bonnie biting her lip, the notebook forgotten and the page blank. Bonnie’s left fingernails were already colored in as she scribbled the nails of her right hand black with the tip of the sharpie, not reacting to the growing commotion downstairs. Rhiannon sighed, her thumbs moving to pull and flick at the heavy ends of her fingers.
“Yeah. I know.” Bonnie’s head inclined towards the door. “I can’t believe this is actually happening.”
“I know. It’s so fast. I mean, it hasn’t even been four years.”
“Seven? What, no–” Rhiannon’s eyes narrowed in on Bonnie.
“Yeah, seven. ‘Cause I was working on that big project in freshman biology when I heard about it and your dad told Nana and Papaw he’d been sick for a year by then.”
But that couldn’t have been right. Rhiannon’s dad had promised never to lie to her about his illness. Three years ago, when her mom and Nick had left the dinner table after the kids had been told he was sick, her dad had sworn to always tell her the truth.
Rhiannon remembered the ALS Society benefit last Christmas. Her mom was off somewhere working the room like a social butterfly on the socialite circuit, and Rhiannon was staying with her father at the table, all the while keeping an eye on Nick, who had discovered the desert table and was one frosted cupcake away from a world of bellyache. Doctor Something-or-Other from Such-and-Such Memorial Hospital had stopped at the table, and Rhiannon’s dad relied on her to act as translator. When the doctor asked how long her father had been fighting the disease and Rhiannon immediately responded “just over three years”, the doctor’s caterpillar brows crawled to his hairline. But when Rhiannon turned to her father for validation, he slowly nodded, head lolling away from the head rest, tapped once and slowly signed T-H-R-E-E.
Over the years, Rhiannon’s dad said the disease progressed faster in him than normal, where most people with his form of the disease would fight for four to six years after diagnosis. In the last few months, he was adamant about how aggressive the progression was, how the prognosis was minimum and at any moment, the ventilator could fail. That night, when he begged his family to support him, he unwavering in his determination to convey that regardless of the power of the ventilator, the prognosis was mere months before some vital organ stopped working. But really, he’d been fighting and surviving for nearly twice as long as he always said. And to Rhiannon, that changed everything.
Maybe he hadn’t really lied. Maybe he was stubborn and refused be believe that the last chance diagnosis wasn’t real. Maybe hiding the truth was something else, something meant to be honorable. All Rhiannon knew was he had never told her the whole truth, had avoided discussing the matter, and in her seventeen-year-old mind, that was equal to a lie. What if he had let her believe as she did, never telling her, to serve his own purpose?
But he had told Bonnie?
And Bonnie never said a word?
“Wait. You knew? And you never told me?”
Bonnie finally looked up, her eyes cagily meeting Rhiannon’s. “It wasn’t my secret to tell. Besides, I thought by now you knew how long it’d been.” She shrugged and turned back to the television screen, a sad half laugh bubbling up. “If it ever gets me, don’t make me wait so long to die. Just shoot me.”
Rhiannon had forgotten. Someone on both sides of Bonnie’s family had died, or was dying, from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and all research said it was genetic, so could it be passed on? She knew Bonnie lived in fear that it was, spending all her time with her family as if banking minutes like rainy day savings.
Rhiannon wanted to say something, but no words came, and by the time she had found her voice, her Aunt Sarah was knocking at the door, telling the girls it was time. Bonnie got up the bed, her face freezing in a steely melancholy resolve after a deep breath, her lips moving along with Feeny’s: Ok, party’s over. See you all at my funeral.
Bonnie heaved another sigh and turned back to her cousin. “I have to go down to Nana and I guess get Mom on the phone.” She brushed past Rhiannon, giving her hand a squeeze as she did. Reaching the door, she turned back. “Oh, by the way, your nails are all messed up.”
As Rhiannon followed her down the stairs, she realized that Bonnie was right. She knew, no matter how angry she was at Bonnie for keeping something this big from her for so long, that it was her dad’s, and not Bonnie’s, secret to tell. It was a secret she was never supposed to know, and now, with her father in a drugged sleep in the lumpy hospital bed, she would never know why.
It was all she could think of in that room downstairs, numbers swirling in her mind and before her eyes as she tried to focus on staying strong for her mom and Nick. Seven years meant things weren’t as fast as they seemed, meant that her dad hadn’t been the drinker she’d thought in middle school. Seven years meant he’d fought beyond the odds, and maybe Nana was right, and he could be a living miracle and survive, if only he weren’t so stubborn. And maybe that wasn’t a possibility; somewhere in the back of it all, Rhiannon knew she was kidding herself, but she would never know, would she, because he never saw fit for her to know.
Rhiannon’s cycling thoughts were interwoven with the growing buzz of the room. Fr. Rik’s low, smooth repetition of the rosary from his spot at the head of the bed, was mixed with her Nana’s prayers from her son’s feet for a miracle, for her son to: breathe, breathe John, breathe. Her Papaw and Uncle Jim looked on from the benches at either side of the bed, lips silently following Fr. Rik’s rosary beads. Her Aunt Sarah, who sat next to Uncle Jim, had found a bell normally kept packed for the Christmas tree. She leaned off the edge of the piano bench, jingling the silver ornament towards Rhiannon’s father’s bed, repeatedly lilting in a sing-song voice: every time a bell rings, an angel gets their wings. Go to the light and find your wings, Johnny, find your wings and fly away. Rhiannon’s mom was softly whispering at the head of the bed: it’s okay, we’re okay, you can let go, as Nick fought to keep his face and his sniffling sobs restrained. Her mom paid no heed to Nick, and Rhiannon wanted to reach out to comfort him, but she was turned to stone, as was her Papaw at her side, and it was Bonnie, on the floor at her feet, who reached up to wipe away the tears from Nick’s eyes. He climbed down and curled himself in their Papaw’s lap like a small child. Rhiannon could feel her tense muscles trembling and Bonnie, cell phone still to her ear and giving low murmured updates to her mom, stuck in Texas, glanced up. She moved her head from Nick’s to Rhiannon’s knee, her fingers automatically running, softly scratching, up and down her cousin’s lower leg in absent-minded act of comfort.
Above it all, Rhiannon’s dad’s grating breaths broke down the rhythm, broke down her resolve, becoming increasingly short, choppy, further and further apart. Her own heart raced, hard, twice – no three times faster than his must have been. And when Bonnie’s whispered comfort of “it’s okay, it’ll be okay” mixed with Rhiannon’s mom’s, it was not enough to provide comfort, or maybe it was too much, and the creak of the old bench and the slam of the front door against the wall as Rhiannon raced out were timed with her father’s last breaths. As his sputtering heart stopped, Rhiannon’s bare feet created a new pounding rhythm on the wet slippery surface of the road.
She didn’t know where she was running, wasn’t even fully aware of the forward movement that came with the steady down down down, go go go. Her ragged feet stopped of their own volition somewhere between the highway and the end of Rhiannon’s world, her knees slamming into the muddy grass at the curb and her chest pounding as she retched, before collapsing back in the sod. It was minutes, hours, years, before she opened her eyes again and wiped away the wet puddles on her cheeks, tears she never realized she cried. Up above, the sky was rapidly fading to purple and the white moon was her dad’s favorite kind: a slim crescent, a tiny sliver – a toenail in the sky. Aware again, she felt the cold damp of April, saw the field around her where she had learned to play soccer and ride a dirt bike, where her dad had searched for hours after their hunt for the fake snipe had ended, as little Rhiannon and Bonnie munched on freshly baked cookies.
* * *
It was under the light of the toenail moon and the glaring street lamps that Rhiannon had wandered back home on aching, torn up feet, to a house empty of all but family, and empty of her dad. Two years passed the mere blink an eye, or so it felt. Now, walking through the front door on her twentieth birthday, a realtor’s sign posted in the yard and an angry pre-teen boy locked in his room upstairs, Rhiannon was still met daily with the absence of her dad and the guilt of that missed goodbye.
Her mom buzzed through the foyer and out the door with mumbled instructions of, “Your brother is grounded, so no video games, movies, cell phone, whatnot. Call the cell if you need me.”
Now left alone, Rhiannon turned back to the mysterious package. Layers of tape flaked off like scales, flecks of cardboard clinging on. Finally breaking through and peeling back the flaps, Rhiannon was met with a fat yellow envelope atop the mound of tissue paper. She lifted it gingerly from the box and turned it over to find a message scrawled in thick marker lines.
Happy Happy Birthday, Anni!
Twenty. Wow, right? That’s old. Which makes me older. But anyway, I wanted to wish you a happy birthday, and let you know I miss you and I’m sorry for not coming. By the way, the stuff in this envelope: Yes, I stole your identity… Someone had to apply, and I knew it wasn’t going to be you.
Don’t hate me.
You should do it. Don’t waste your life at home! Uncle John would want you to, and you know it. Don’t believe me? Check the box and you will!
And don’t worry, you don’t have to pay me back (you’ll see).
Love you, cuz!
From the envelope fell a pamphlet from a culinary program in Italy as well as a letter of acceptance for the May program, an application fee payment receipt, and a photocopy of the initial application. A convincing replication of Rhiannon’s handwriting was mixed with Bonnie’s normal chicken scratch into a hodge-podge script of information and signatures and dates. Rhiannon sank down heavily on the bench, wondering what could possibly make Bonnie think it was okay to throw this at her, that she could up and leave just to learn to cook pasta. Sure, it’d been a dream of hers growing up, but she’d learned that dreams are just that: dreams. An associate’s in nutrition at the community college down the road was as close as she would ever get, and eventually, she’d probably be qualified to be an assistant to a nutritional doctor, or maybe a chain restaurant chef. Eventually, she’d have to pick a real career; her mom was pushing for the tech school’s medical technician program.
Rhiannon sat the papers aside and dug through the tissue paper for the promised clue. Her fingers closed on something hard and she drew out a thick DVD box, labeled as being the final season of their favorite show growing up: Boy Meets World, with a small note attached saying, simply, “just for fun”. Next, she withdrew a worn out pocket dictionary, the post-it marked page showing a thick black line through where the contraction “can’t” should be. Returning to the box again, she finally found something amongst the paper, and two small foot-shaped booklets made of construction paper, crayon, and hair ribbon.
She had completely forgotten. Her dad had made them with her and Bonnie when they were little, tracing their tiny feet on sheets of construction paper and binding the cutout prints together into little books. “Foot Books,” he called them. “Ten steps you’ll take to being a happy grown-up.” Inside he’d helped them write and draw the ten things they wanted to do most when they were bigger.
The first was Bonnie’s. Flipping through the pages, she saw a big black check in the big toe of each: see the world, drink coffee all day, fly, do what I want to do.
The last page was plain white printer paper, empty of childish artwork. Her dad’s scrawled writing cut across the tiny footprint in thin red ink: “Find Your Truth, Find Yourself” . And along the toes, in thick Sharpie, were three scribbled words: “Work In Progress”.
The second book was Rhiannon’s.
Most of her goals were simple. Stay up all night, drive a car, kiss a boy.
On page 7 she found another post it note, this time with just an arrow point to: “Learn to make spagetti and stuff for Daddy in
Italee Italley Italy”. On the back of the page, her dad had written his encouragement, and she wondered how long ago he had returned to the small book to add his note.
It was after many moments of imagining this dream coming true that Rhiannon blinked back to reality. She couldn’t leave Nick to fend for himself and fight his own demons when mom was always busy with work and her “secret” boyfriend. She shoved the books and papers back in the box without looking through the rest of the pages. Whatever life advice her dad had could wait. Right now, Mom was out with her new boyfriend and Nick was hungry. She put the package out of her mind for the time being, and a few minutes later, called Nick down to a meal of boiled store-bought noodles and Ragu.
She wasn’t saying no indefinitely. Maybe things would change, in a month, or three, or seven, but for now, her answer: “I can’t”. Hopefully, her dad would understand. After all, he taught her the word, told her never to give up, and later changed his mind and did both. Maybe it was weakness, maybe it was a final act of strength for the sake of his family. Who knew?
Rhiannon would probably never know for sure, although through the years she would be drawn towards latter, wanting to believe that her father in the end was as selfless as she remembered him being when she was growing up. What Rhiannon knew, at twenty and home alone with Nick, was that there was a frosted Cake Factory cupcake on the counter, grubby boyish fingerprints on the wrapper, and a kid brother with a busted lip who needed her way more than she would ever need some fancy cooking school.