“Give me my freedom for as long as I be.
All I ask of living is to have no chains on me.
All I ask of living is to have no chains on me,
and all I ask of dying is to go naturally, only want to go naturally.
Don’t want to go by the devil, don’t want to go by the demon,
don’t want to go by Satan, don’t want to die uneasy,
just let me go naturally.
And when I die and when I’m gone,
there’ll be one child born, there’ll be one child
born in the world to carry on.” Music and Lyrics by Laura Nyro
Nancy’s head replayed the telephone conversation from Delia. Saved from searching through Ellie’s address book, her cell phone destroyed in the accident, by Delia’s initiative. She hadn’t known Ellie’s father and step-mother well, having only visited with them a few times over the years during one of their rare visits or inspections as Ellie referred to them.
She did know Ellie had visited them at least twice a year since her Dad’s retirement from the Air Force. At least she did not have to get the house ready for their arrival, Delia had already made reservations. They were flying into Wichita Falls and a driver would ferry them to and from and about town during their visit.
She remembered them as stiff, aloof people, but Delia had sounded, well, not chatty, but soft, friendly with a warmth in her voice that Nancy did not recall at all. There had even been a moment when the line went silent and Nancy could have sworn Delia was crying.
She pulled into Ellie’s driveway, noticing a strange blue Camry with a Hertz rental sticker on the back window. Clara? But, wasn’t Brian picking her up at the airport in Oklahoma City? She sighed, given the history between the two, maybe Clara had opted at the last minute to drive herself. Climbing out of the car into the afternoon heat sweat immediately poured from her pores.
She dug in her bag to extract her key to Ellie’s house, but reaching the kitchen door she noticed it was ajar. Her heart quickened, even here, that was odd. Ellie locked her doors when she was away. First, a strange rental car in the driveway and now this? She shook her head and murmured to herself, “Clara.”
Pushing it open cautiously, she first noticed take out food wrappers and drink cups littering the table. Odd, Ellie seldom let such debris pile up, but then she had had some awful news. Moving through the kitchen and into the expansive living room she spied a familiar figure sitting in the midst of scattered journals and papers, shoulders heaving with sobs.
Without thinking she lowered herself to the floor and took her weeping daughter, her prodigal into her arms and rocked her, trying to understand what she was saying between her sobs.
“Mom, Mom, did (sob) did (sob) you know?”
“Know what, Cupcake?” Nancy found herself still trying to absorb the fact that she had found her daughter in Ellie’s house.
“Ellie (sob) had a (sob) brain tumor. She only (sob) had a (sob) a few months to live.” Mandy’s voice gained strength, turning accusatory. She shoved several sheets of paper directly into her mother’s chest pushing her away, as she scrambled out of the embrace. Backing up like a frightened animal, Nancy thought with a pang. Words failed her, her emotions too raw. Obviously, Nancy concluded, Mandy had come to Ellie’s bypassing even the courtesy of a call to her mother. The sheet and pillow on the couch, the mess in the kitchen and on the floor before both of them evidence that she had been here at least since yesterday. As a mother it was hard not to be offended by Mandy’s actions, but she pulled the blast of recriminations back from the tip of her tongue, swallowed them and looked down at the papers Mandy had thrust into her lap.
A still small voice in her head reminded her there is a “time to be silent” and so she perused the papers with their diagnosis ( Grade IV, Glioblastoma), prognosis (poor), treatment options (palliative). She looked at the list of medications, Ellie had been taking recognizing only one or two, pain medication, anti-seizure medication. Then as if she could grasp the content better, or maybe to avoid engaging her daughter, she read them again.
Mandy spoke first, her voice tiny, child-like, “We could have said ‘good-by’ if we had just known. But NO she had to go and die first! That is just so mean!” Her voice broke into a sob that convulsed into laughter. Nancy snorted and then laughed with her daughter until they both were crying again.
“Just like her to go and die before we could say good-by. What kind of friend was she?” Nancy remarked through gulps of laughter and sobs, tears streaming down her face.
Then in unison, eyes meeting, “THE BEST.” So true, so true.
Sally Burton produced tuna sandwiches for the group around the table with not a single turned up nose. Since Les preferred peanut butter and jelly, she expected him to complain, but he simply pulled a sandwich from the plate and gobbled it down with his friends. They were intent on a project of their own making, having requested drawing and painting materials, which Sally produced. Macy had run home and returned with poster board. Even Jessie’s two younger sisters were busy coloring in letters, with Jessie’s warning that they had better stay within the lines.
Retreating Sally bumped into her husband as he came out of his office or “man cave” as she had dubbed it. Paul’s face betrayed his frustration and concern. Uprooting his family, laying off men and women, he thought of as friends weighed heavily on him. He tried desperately to hide his raw emotions and laugh as he and Sally collided.
“Oops! Sorry, Sal. Wasn’t watching where I was going.”
Sally caressed his forearm, wishing he’d quit trying to hide his emotions to spare her. Good grief after all the years they had been together did he think his stiff upper lip, fake jollying would fool her. They needed to talk. She knew it. He knew it. Moving to Mexico wasn’t either of them’s choice, but job hunting wasn’t either. They had been so sure when he became Plant Manager that they would be set, not wealthy, but not poor either.
“I just fixed some tuna sandwiches for the kids, Les’s Sunday School class, would you like one?”
“Sure. What are those kids doing over here?” Paul frowned.
“Oh, you know Ellie gave them all saplings on Sunday morning. They were going to plant them together with her on Monday with some sort of ceremony…Of course, that didn’t happen.”
Sally’s voice trailed off and she was silent for a few moments.
“Well, I think Les has his in his room in water, but a couple of the kids threw theirs out. Jessie Adams was the one who wanted to carry on with the whole idea, but with two of the trees gone, and Ellie gone…” again her voice faltered, “They are working on something else together maybe like a memorial to Ellie. I have kinda tried to let them do their own thing.” She stopped then added, “It is the most animated Les has been in the last couple of weeks.”
Paul grimaced, snatched the sandwich from her and started back to his study. “Well, it is not my fault, Sally. I am just doing what I have to do for my own family.”
Sally followed his back with her eyes, but did not respond or hurry after him. She knew he was hurting. She knew he was not responsible for MarVal closing up shop and heading across the border, but at that moment she had exhausted her reserve of comfort giving.
Their hysterical scene calmed, Nancy began clearing take out clutter from the kitchen, with Mandy following behind wiping surfaces clean. Together they folded the sheets on the couch with Nancy putting them in a sack to take home and laundry. They worked silently. The laughing, crying frenzy had pretty much quelled conversation.
Other than the notebooks, journals, and loose paper on the floor, the place was in order. They both sat down on the floor at the same time. Mandy had already begun the task, Ellie’s letter had asked Nancy and Clara to do, so Nancy saw no reason to move the piles. Just as she was thinking Brian and Clara should be there soon, she heard car doors open and close in the driveway. Mandy looked up, startled.
“Brian and Clara,” Nancy reminded Mandy. “He picked her up at the airport.”
Mandy nodded. Mother and daughter rose off the floor just as Clara followed by Brian entered by the kitchen door. Clara immediately ran into Nancy’s arms, struggling not to completely break down. Brian glared at his sister and mimed ‘why don’t you answer your phone?’