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Where Love Lives (A Short Story)

Updated: Jan 4, 2019

Where Love Lives

I, Claire Montgomery, am sitting in a cushioned bay window enjoying those first few sips of my morning coffee when it hits me. As if out of nowhere, the blinding morning sun washes over my entire apartment and it reminds me of her. I run over to my unmade bed and curl up like a cat, letting out a sob that I forgot I had in me. Thick tears spill onto my baby blue pillow and I wish that even for a moment, I could bring her back. So that she’d sit beside me, brush my sandy blonde hair out of my face, all wet and sticky, and whisper she loved me more than the moon loved the stars. Perhaps then, I'd feel it again. The fullness in my heart I used to feel. Grief has a way of sneaking up on you like that, for when the sunlight reflects off the window at just the right angle and when you think you’ve finally started anew, you realize it's still there, waiting. Yet what I’m learning is that starting over isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even after all of the years, I'm still not quite sure where I belong. I hoped it was here in Philadelphia with the windows cracked open, but I haven't received my sign yet.

It’s been nine years since she passed and I can sometimes feel the pain of my mom’s death like it was yesterday. I can hear the birds singing outside my open window and I remember that my mom used to say that their song is beckoning us to get outside and see the world. And because grief is like an old friend and I am in a new city trying to start a new life, I feel pushed out of the comfort of my bed and out the door. As I walk, the daffodils make me smile and I feel the bumpiness of my feet traveling down the narrow cobblestone streets of Philadelphia, where I have moved to. I take in my surroundings like a drink of cold water on a hot summer day because sometimes the best remedy for longing for the past is living in the present.

This new place prompts me to think of possibilities for my future. Perhaps, I could get back into painting. Something I’ve always wanted to pursue. I could take classes or join a club. Make new friends. Yet, mixed with feelings of excitement are doubts that follow me around like a puppy. What if I can't start again? What if my heart never heals? What if I never truly feel alive in the way I used to feel? In Allensville I lost the part of myself that could dream about things. The past feels too heavy to carry around anymore. Yet, like this morning, I can't seem to fully shake it. It seems like everyone’s found a way to move on, except for me. I moved to a new town because a little voice inside, one that would wake me up in the middle of the night kept whispering, “go.” So I went. But truthfully, I don't know what I'm doing.

It was a Friday afternoon in January when my mom died suddenly. I was at home when dad’s phone rang and on an impulse, I answered it. In that moment, I felt the life sucked out of my body. I was told mom’s car had collided with a truck on the icy roads. The officer wouldn’t tell me if she was okay, saying he needed to speak with my father. I threw his phone against the wall, feeling out of control. At first, we grieved together as a family. My dad, brothers and I would eat casseroles and talk about how much we missed her. We were all in shock. Thinking, just maybe, she’d walk through the front door. Eventually, I had to go back to school and my dad back to work. My brother’s dealt with their grief by moving on, more literally. They both moved to homes of their own within months. Then it was just dad and I at home. On the outside, it seemed as though my brothers had managed to keep their hearts intact while grieving the loss of our mom. I felt like mine broke and stayed broken. It was a pain I couldn't escape. My dad was lost in the same pain, but he had found a way to escape.

My mom had silky sunshine hair that fell to her hips and a glow that rarely escaped her, even as she aged. She was the kind of mother that hugged you tightly when you swore you hated her and then you’d melt into her arms and realize that really, in that moment, you hated yourself. She’d cry with you when you were sad and she believed in your dreams. Together, we used to sit outside after dinner with mugs of Lipton tea and gaze up at the stars.We would talk about big things like boys and art and we'd also sit in silence, my head on her shoulder.

She and my dad had met in Philly while he was enrolled in a construction seminar. He was at a coffee shop with his classmate, Sam when Sam spotted Shelly, sitting alone, sipping coffee at a corner table. Tom, being the shy and quiet type, told Sam that Shelly was strikingly beautiful, but that there was no way he was going to approach her. Shelly sipped a cappuccino, graded papers on Tuck Everlasting and like a fly on the wall of a very small coffee shop, witnessed the back and forth between Sam and Tom. Sam knew that Tom Montgomery was a “catch.” He had a gentle heart and a strong work ethic that would make the right woman very happy. Tired of Sam in his ear, Tom approached Shelly and quickly found that she was not only beautiful but also down to earth, smart and kind. They had dinner the next night and the night after that, until they got engaged.

Shelly moved to Allensville and got a job as a Middle School English Teacher. They completed their family with three children. Shelly loved being a mom and understood each of her child’s quirks. She was intuitive like that. She was also free spirited. The windows of our home were always open and music was often playing. She believed rain was music and being barefoot in the grass was medicine. Although Tom was strong, Shelly was the glue that held the family together. She laughed the loudest, listened the most, and loved the hardest..

The suddenness of Shelly’s passing changed my dad. He became so angry, as if his anger could bring his her back. For a while, he believed that it could. He drove recklessly and over the speed limit, he barked orders at his employees and he snapped at the grocery store clerk. Yet, most of all, he was angry at himself. His job was to protect his wife and family and he felt he had failed. He shouldn’t have let this happen, he thought. Quite the blame to place on oneself, but that's how much he loved his wife.

I would think to myself that I couldn’t lose my dad too, but there were nights where I thought I might. It’d be really late and he’d miss dinner by hours. I knew he was out drinking. My only solace was to sit in the backyard with a cup of lipton tea and stare up at the stars. I’d count them one by one and rub my bare feet against the grass and feel my breath rise and fall. Eventually, I’d hear the screen door open and dad would say that I should get to bed. There was no going back to the way things were.

When he’d make it home in time for dinner, we’d order takeout, Chinese being our favorite, and exchange a few words about our day. Although his eyes were often empty and his posture slumped, he always kissed me goodnight, even if he stumbled into my room so late that I was dreaming. I knew he drank because of his grief, but I wished he’d talk to me about it instead. I wished that he and I could sit together under the stars and dig our feet into the ground, but I know that that would bring him too close to mom.

Tom was grateful for his daughter. She reminded him just enough of his wife to give him hope, but not so much as to be overwhelming. Coming home to her kept him alive.The pain of losing Shelly was so great that Tom wished he were the one to go. A drink took the edge off of that thought and temporarily blunted his pain. He felt guilty for not being fully present for Claire, but he was doing everything he could to keep himself together for her. He’d focus on his business and his kids, but he’d walk with his head hung low.

In the end, it was my dad and I who picked up the pieces for each other. In those quiet moments, over time, sitting down to dinner, I started to breathe more deeply and his eyes looked brighter. With time, he slowly cut back on drinking and started spending more time at home. Sometimes thoug, through the thin walls of our old home, I’d overhear him cry, and I’d put on my robe and sit outside and I’d cry too. We began a tradition of Sunday dinners with my brothers and eventually, their wives. A few years later, my dad reconnected with a woman, Marie, who he went to HighSchool with. At first, the thought of dad with another woman made me sick but then on one of those nights sitting under the stars, I knew that was what mom would’ve wanted. She always told us the cure for almost everything was love and I knew that dad was in love.

On my twenty-fourth birthday, dad gave me his blessing to move from Allensville to Philadelphia. I thought it would’ve been easier to make this fresh start. That I might feel differently, more freeing. But this ease I keep imagining is a facade. I don't think it's easy for anyone. We just want to think it is to give us a sense of hope. I realize my grief will continue to follow me around and that it is a sign that I have loved deeply, but I still wonder how do I make peace with having lost someone too soon or at all. My mother was the most peaceful woman I knew. Maybe she had a secret. Maybe it’s a secret the birds, the grass and the stars know too. So I think in addition to making art again, I’m going to continue to listen to the birds and think of my mom when I look up at the stars. Because love can live anywhere, perhaps even it lives everywhere and that gives me hope.

Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

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