The Good Wife
All you have to do is get through this, Sarah told herself, gulping down wine from her mom’s Waterford Lismore goblet.
She didn’t have to like it. Didn’t have to be at the door, greeting every single person as he or she arrived. Didn’t have to know the right thing to say, or the right thing to do, because that was Mom’s job. Dad might be the rock in the family, but Mom was the glue.
Sarah drank more wine, blinking back tears as she dodged yet another well meaning guest, trying to avoid her family at the same time, which was even more challenging as the Brennans were a large family, and she the youngest of five, with aunts and uncles and cousins in every corner of the house.
Normally she loved her close, opinionated family, but right now she didn’t want to talk to any of them, unable to deal with them. They’d spent the past few days monitoring her eating, her drinking, her parenting skills, and then bombarding her with unsolicited suggestions and advice, forgetting she at thirty-six, she was an adult, a woman, not little Sarah, the charming, good natured baby of the family.
It’d been years since she had thought of herself as charming or good natured. Sarah was also certain that Boone, her husband of thirteen years, wouldn’t call her good natured, either. No, he’d probably describe her as intense, emotional, demanding. Maybe even a little unstable, but honestly, what professional athlete’s wife wasn’t?
Once upon a time, a long time ago, she’d been the athlete, playing soccer, basketball, and softball in elementary school, and then volleyball, basketball and softball in high school before going on to play volleyball at UCLA. A tall, strong athlete, Sarah had been a physical player, and she’d been blessed with mental toughness, too. After UCLA, she’d planned on going on to law school to take on the bad guys on the world, but instead met Boone and gave up law school to be his wife.
She’d never thought it’d been a mistake—trading her dreams for his—until her world fell apart a couple years ago, and she’d been fighting to rebuild her marriage, and her self-esteem, ever since.
Sarah drained her glass as she eased through the crowd, wobbling ever so slightly in her black heels as she entered the dining room to refill her glass from the collection of wine bottles on the sideboard.
The pale gold bottle, newly opened, felt damp and cold in her hand. The weight of the bottle felt good. It was a familiar feeling, and reassuring. It was a new bottle, recently taken from the refrigerator. Sarah liked newly opened bottles of wine. It meant that there would be plenty more if she wanted another glass.
And she’d want another glass.
Replacing the golden bottle in the silver coaster, Sarah felt her father’s gaze from the other side of the long dining table. He’d been watching her ever since she entered the room, but Sarah pretended to be oblivious—something she’d perfected as the youngest—and slipped from the room without making eye contact.
Being the youngest did have advantages. Sarah had learned how to manage Dad from watching her older sisters and brother. First of all, you never directly challenged him. He was old-school, a sixth generation San Francisco fire fighter, he was all about serving and protecting his family and community.
Second, even if you totally, absolutely disagreed with him, you didn’t ever tell him that. It was a disaster to pull a Brianna. Far better to at least appear to consider his advice, reflect on his wisdom. Even if it was archaic.
Mom had always been so good at managing Dad, whether it was handling a situation before it became a crisis, or smoothing Dad’s feathers, once they were ruffled, she knew he needed to feel secure, and respected.
Mom had never been shy about admitting that Dad had double standards. His son could do things he didn’t want his girls doing. Like drinking. Tommy Jr could have a beer or two every night when he wasn’t at the fire house, but it made Dad uncomfortable to see his daughters drink. A glass of champagne at Sunday brunch, or Christmas Eve, was nice and festive, but regular drinking? Bad.
The last time she’d seen her five year old, Ella had been with Sarah’s sister, Kit, but that had been…oh, at least thirty minutes ago. Maybe longer, and that wasn’t good. Sarah couldn’t abdicate responsibility for her children just because one of her sisters had offered to keep an eye of the kids.
Entering the family room, Sarah scanned the crowd, spotting Uncle Jack and Aunt Linda with Tommy and Cass, but there were no kids anywhere in sight, no Kit or Ella or Brennan in there. Gulping her Chardonnay, she let the cold, crisp wine warm in her mouth for an extra second before swallowing, and retreated back to the hall, and standing on the bottom step of the staircase, listening for her daughter’s high voice upstairs. Nothing.
She wasn’t panicking yet, but she took a swift step down, and teetered, which didn’t help her sense of self-control.
Maybe she should stop drinking. Maybe she needed to pay a little more attention to her own family.
Weaving through the guests packing the entry hall, she was heading to the living room when a hand reached for her.
Sarah turned, and felt herself be drawn against a big, maternal body, enfolded into a particularly uncomfortable hug.
“I’m so sorry, my dear,” the woman whispered in Sarah’s ear as she patted Sarah’s back. “So very, very sorry.”
“Yes,” Sarah murmured, juggling the wine glass while attempting to detangle herself.
But the woman wasn’t ready to release Sarah and the hug continued, as did the firm pats on Sarah’s back. “I just adored your mother. She will be very missed, my dear.”
Sarah sighed inwardly, giving in to the hug, because that’s all she’d been doing for days. Accepting condolences. Speaking of her spirited, wickedly funny mother in hushed, reverent tones. Speaking of her lively, loving Mother in the past tense.
I absolutely adored her…She was just wonderful…She will be so missed…
Sarah blinked hard, willing the lump in her throat to go away. “Thank you for coming,” she said huskily, successfully pulling away, even as she injected the right note of warmth and appreciation into her voice. As the youngest, Sarah had been able to watch her Mom in action the longest, and her mom, a nurse that had returned to school to earn her MBA in Hospital Administration, was brilliant with people. She had a soft touch that belied her steely core.
And then the woman was gone, and Sarah was back on her mission to find her daughter and she squeezed through the crowd, into the living room, searching chairs and small corners in case Ella had found a quiet spot to sit.
But no, Ella here, either, and trapped by the mantle with its profusion of flowers and framed photos of Mom, Sarah’s head spun, her stomach churning from too much wine on an empty stomach and the cloyingly sweet scent from the Stargazer lilies filling her nose.
My God, but the living room smelled like a mortuary.
Suddenly the tears were falling and Sarah faced the mantle so no one could see her cry. She couldn’t bear it if someone approached her now, trying to comfort her. She didn’t want to be comforted, not when she hadn’t even truly begun to grieve. And how could she grieve with hundreds of people reaching for her, talking to her, trying to keep her from feeling whatever it was she was feeling?
But maybe funerals weren’t for grieving. Maybe funerals were just a thing you did, a way you marked an occasion, passed time.
Maybe once she returned home to Tampa Bay, maybe once she was with Boone, she could let herself feel…let herself hurt…let herself need…
“There you are,” Meg Roberts said, pushing through the crowd to reach Sarah’s side, with another sister, Brianna, in tow. Sarah had three sisters and Meg was the oldest, and married with three kids, while Sarah’s fraternal twin sisters, Brianna and Kit, were both forty, single, and committed to their respective missionary work—Kit, teaching Catholic school in Oakland, and Brianna, working as an infectious disease nurse in Africa.
“Kit was looking for you earlier,” Meg added, tugging gently at the severe neckline of her black dress and fanning herself. “She wanted you to know that she’s taken your two and my Gabi to the park, thinking it would be good to get the younger kids away from the house for awhile.” Meg exhaled hard, cheeks flushed. “Is it hot in here, or is it just me?”
“Good to know it’s not just me,” Meg muttered, lifting a hand to wave at a couple across the room. “Can’t remember their name. Friends of mom. I think the woman used to work at St. Mary’s—“
“Lorraine O’Neill, and her husband Charlie,” Brianna said, glancing over her shoulder. “I’ve already spent a half hour talking to them today. Lorraine is taking mom’s death really hard, and she’s quite emotional. If she nabs you, you’ll end up comforting her.”
“Don’t want to do that,” Sarah said. “Don’t want to do any of this. When are people going to go?”
“Soon, I hope,” Meg said. “I’ve got a terrible headache.”
“I do, too. I think it’s the flowers.” Sarah slid her empty glass onto the mantle, where it clinked against a vase, and then against a metal frame. All week Aunt Linda had been gathering pictures of Mom, turning the living room into a shrine. Mom, the swaddled newborn. Mom, the wary, toddler on a red tricycle, and then again as the serious, knobby-kneed five-year-old in her plaid uniform on the first day of Kindergarten.
And then there was Mom, in her stiff white dress and veil in the all-important Catechism photo, and again at the beach house in Capitola at thirteen with her three brothers, and later as the high school graduate in her velvet shrug, with dark red lips and high arched brows.
Sarah reached out to touch her favorite, the photo of Mom as a slender, stunning, twenty year old bride just about to walk down the aisle, with the sun shining around her from the stained glass windows behind her, silhouetting her, making her look like an angel.
“I love this one,” she said, adjusting the 8 x 10 frame. It was the picture Dad had on his nightstand, the one Sarah used to stare at as a little girl, dazzled by the beauty of her dark haired, dark eyed mother in her beautiful white dress.
“I do, too,” Meg said, her voice cracking. Impatiently she reached up to wipe her eyes. “This has to stop. I can’t cry anymore today. I’ve had it with tears.”
“Me, too.” Sarah glanced towards the crowded room, and beyond to the hall. “It’s been a long day. I had no idea the reception would last this long.”
“Poor Dad. He’s been surrounded all day. How does he do it?” Brianna asked.
“Must be his training, all those years as a fireman, keeps him focused.” Meg’s brow furrowed. “But what about later tonight? When everyone’s gone? I think it’s going to be hard then.”
“But I’ll be here tonight,” Brianna said. “And Tommy and Cass. They’re staying over, too.”
Meg nodded. “That’s good. Makes me feel better.”
But Sarah shot Brianna a cool look. She was glad Brianna was staying with Dad for the next few days, but she wasn’t happy with Bree. Wasn’t sure when she’d stop being angry with Brianna for her power play when Mom was dying.
“What?” Brianna demanded, eyebrows arching as she noted Sarah’s expression.
Sarah shrugged, refusing to engage, and turned to Meg. “Can Kit manage three young kids on her own?”
Brianna groaned. “Kit’s a teacher, Sarah.”
Sarah ignored this, too.
Meg seemed oblivious to the tension between her younger sisters. “Kit’s not alone. She has Jude with her.”
“I don’t find that in the least bit reassuring,” Sarah answered. She didn’t like Kit’s new boyfriend, biker Jude Knight. Jude claimed he’d hung out with Sarah and a friend of Sarah’s years ago, but Sarah didn’t remember him, and couldn’t imagine ever hanging out with someone like him. It wasn’t just his tats and piercings that put her off, it was his whole I-don’t-care-about-anyone-vibe and Sarah just couldn’t understand how kind, compassionate, bookish Kit, could be attracted to someone so completely opposite her in every way. “I don’t trust him,” she added. “And we know nothing about him–other than the fact that he works part-time as a mechanic at a garage in Oakland—and frankly, I don’t think he should be around our kids until we do know more.”
“Kit adores her nieces and nephews. She’s not going to let anything happen to them,” Meg said.
Sarah didn’t have the same confidence and her wine-fueled imagination was taking flight. “But what if he’s a child molester? What if he tries something when Kit’s not around?”
Meg glanced from Sarah to Brianna and back again. “I really doubt he’s a child molester. Jack talked to him a few days ago and thought he was interesting.”
“But interesting and safe isn’t the same thing. And we want safe around the kids.”
“Sarah’s right,” Brianna said quietly. “One shouldn’t take chances. You really never never. But, on the positive side, I do think Kit is…sensitive…to that sort of thing.”
“Okay. You’ve got me convinced. I’ll go give her a call,” Meg said, before slipping through crowd to go find her phone.
That’s what was happening. Meg had just engineered this moment, leaving Brianna with Sarah, hoping that Sarah and Brianna might finally talk. Sort things out. But Sarah felt far from conciliatory, and she turned away from Brianna, reaching for one of the little cards tucked in the nearest floral arrangement.
Tom, our thoughts and prayers are with you and the children. Love, The Deluceys
“Nice card?’ Brianna asked.
Sarah eased the little card back into the equally tiny envelope. “Yes.”
“Who was it from?”
Sarah tried to give her the envelope but Brianna wouldn’t take it.
“How long is the silent treatment going to last?” Brianna asked, her naturally husky voice sharp with exasperation and mockery.
Sarah looked down her nose at her sister. Brianna might be older, but she was tiny, barely reaching Sarah’s shoulder. “I have nothing to say to you, Bree.”
“You’re being such a drama queen.”
“Go away. I’m sure there is someone in the house you can torment.”
“This is stupid. You do know that, Sarah?”
“Of course it’s stupid to you. You were the one who was there with Mom. And you were the one that got to say goodbye.”
“Mom needed to go. She was in pain.”
A thick knot filled Sarah’s throat. She swallowed hard, but it just grew bigger. “Please just go away.”
Brianna’s delicate features tightened. “I wasn’t trying to hurt you, Sarah. Wasn’t trying to hurt any of you. I was just focused solely on Mom that night, wanting what was best for her—”
“She was dying.”
“And you hurried it along.”
“What?” Brianna’s voice spiked, echoing too loudly in the period living room, momentarily silencing all other conversation.
Sarah saw the Martins, Hughes, and Keegans—all friends of her parents—glance at her and Brianna before quickly looking away.
Brianna leaned towards Sarah, and dropped her voice. “You make me sound like Dr. Kevorkian!”
“If the shoe fits…?”
“All I did was hold her hand, and tell her how much she was loved—“
“And what a good job she’d done, a great job, but she’d fulfilled her responsibilities, and now she was free to go.” Sarah blinked, clearing her vision, furious, so furious. “And she did.”
“She needed to go. She was hurting.”
“I get that. But you should have called us. You should have given us a chance to say goodbye, too.” Her voice broke. “At the very least, you should have called Dad. You owed it to Dad…to all of us.”
Brianna jerked her chin up. “She couldn’t have gone, not with us all around the bed, hanging on to her for dear life.”
“You don’t know that. We will never know that—“
“Get over yourself!”
“Myself? Myself?” Sarah clapped a hand to her forehead and laughed. “You’re the one that lives on the other side of the world, only flying in for the big moments, and only then on Mom and Dad’s dime—“
“I have never taken their money,” Brianna snapped, folding bony arms across her thin chest. She’d returned from Africa two weeks ago emaciated, her slender frame downright skeletal. Everyone had been alarmed, and none more so than Mom. There had been endless discussion about Bree’s health, behind Bree’s back–did she have cancer? Was she dying? What had happened to her on the Congo?—even as Brianna insisted she was fine. “Nor have I ever asked for financial support, not even to go to college, unlike you, who had them pay for your undergraduate education, as well as law school.”
“I didn’t go, but they’d hoped I go, and they wanted to do it for me. They were proud of me—“
“Let’s just hope you don’t ever need a real job—“
“I have a job, Bree. I’m a wife and a mother—“ she broke off, silenced by the pressure of her brother’s hand bearing down on her shoulder.
“What’s the matter with you two?” he demanded curtly, his broad shoulders rigid inside his black suit jacket. “Everyone can hear you. Dad can hear you. I bet even Mom can hear you.”
Brianna managed a tight-lipped apology and walked away, leaving Tommy with Sarah.
He glanced towards Brianna, who was rounding the living room corner to disappear into the entry hall, and watched her a moment, before turning to Sarah. “What’s going on? You and Bree are usually thick as thieves.”
He frowned. “Have you been drinking?”
She flushed. Was it that obvious? So annoying. “I just had a glass. But I need to eat. Haven’t eaten today.”
“Then don’t drink anymore.”
“Good.” He glowered down at her, his expression bemused. “So when did Bree stop being your favorite sister?”
Sarah groaned inwardly, wanting Advil. Three of them and a huge glass of water might help the pounding in her head. “I hope you don’t say that sort of thing in front of Meg or Kit. It’d hurt their feelings.”
“No, it wouldn’t. They know it’s true.”
“Even if it used to be true, it’s still not something you should say in front of them.” She ran a trembling hand down her hip, lightly smoothing the black velvet fabric. She’d found the dress with the burn out design and three quarter sleeves on Amazon. It’d looked comfortable and was affordable, which was good, because Sarah didn’t intend to ever wear it again.
“I think I know why you’re fighting. Cass told me. And I can’t believe it’s true. Hope it’s not true that you’re blaming Brianna for Mom dying when you weren’t there.”
“First of all, it’s none of your business, and secondly, I’m not blaming Brianna for Mom’s death. I’m just really pissed off that Brianna wouldn’t call any of us when she saw that Mom was getting ready to go. She could have called us. We were just minutes away—“
“So you are blaming Bree.”
“I just don’t think it’s fair that Brianna was the only one who got to say goodbye—“
“But life isn’t fair! You of all people have to know that by now.”
She stiffened, shoulders drawing back, as she pressed her fingers against her throbbing temple. “What do you mean, me of all people?”
“Being married to Boone. His career as a major league baseball player. The whole professional sports world.” He gave her a puzzled look. “What do you think I meant?”
“I don’t know.” She rubbed at her brow, starting to feel sick. “I don’t feel so good.”
Tommy’s gaze rested on her face. “You need to eat.”
“Do you want me to get you something?”
“No, I’ll find something.”
“Most of the food has been put away, with just desserts now in the dining room. But you don’t need a cookie. You need a sandwich, or some lasagna, something—”
“I know what I need,” she said, gagging at the idea of eating lasagna. That would make her throw up. But maybe a sandwich, or a toasted bagel. Something light, something to cut the acid from all that wine in an empty stomach.
Entering the kitchen Sarah found Meg’s husband, Jack Roberts, at the old farmhouse style sink, elbow deep in hot sudsy water.
“Hey, look at you,” Sarah said, surprised to see Jack alone. “Where is everyone? Who is helping you? You shouldn’t be in here by yourself.”
“I’m fine. I don’t need help,” he answered, rinsing the pan he’d just washed and placing it on the counter to his left, where it joined a dozen other Pyrex pans, ceramic casseroles, and wooden salad bowls. “If you’re looking for something to drink, I think there’s an unopened bottle of wine in the fridge—”
“I’m good,” she said, cutting him off, embarrassed. Make that horrified. Did everyone associate her with wine these days? “Actually I wanted something to eat. But let me give you a hand first—”
“Don’t. Honestly. I’m good, Sarah. I really don’t want help. I like doing this, makes me feel—“ he broke off, his expression suddenly wistful—“better. I need to do something. For your mom. Your family.”
Sarah went to her brother-in-law and gave him a swift hug. He endured it with good grace. Jack wasn’t particularly touchy-feely. According to Meg, his family hadn’t been very affectionate. “I appreciate you,” she said, giving him another quick squeeze before going to the refrigerator to see what she could find.
The refrigerator is packed. Plastic containers of every size and shape filled every shelf. So that’s where the leftovers from all those casseroles and salads and pasta dishes had gone. Dad would have food for days. “Can you recommend anything?” she asked Jack, wondering what would be good.
“The chicken Ceasar salad, and the lasagna. But I think the lasagna is gone now.”
“Tommy was pushing the lasagna.”
“I’m not surprised. He was the one who ate it all.”
“I think I’ll just do toast,” Sarah said, closing the fridge door, and opening the breadbox. She popped a slice of cinnamon bread into the toaster and reached for the kettle on the stove. “Want a cup of tea?”
“Actually, I’d love one,” Jack answered, taking the kettle from her and filling it.
Once the kettle was on the stove, Sarah went in search of teabags and told Jack his options. “Green, black, chamomile, mint, peach mango, orange something?”
“How about orange something?”
“You got it,” she said, flashing him a crooked smile. She liked Jack, always had. He was smart, funny, with a dry sense of humor. So different from Boone. Boone was Southern, born and raised in New Orleans’ fabled Garden District, he oozed warmth, charm, and oh how women loved that warmth and charm…
“Am I really just supposed to stand here and watch you?” she asked, once the mugs were filled with steaming water and she’d set his at his elbow.
“No. You’re supposed to sit and watch. Your feet have to be killing you in those shoes. Four inches. Ridiculous.”
She glanced at her feet as she pulled out the counter stool. “I always wear heels.”
“They make me feel pretty.”
“You are pretty. So stop crippling your feet.”
Sarah blew on her tea, “I’ll keep that in mind next time I have a date night with Boone.”
“I can’t believe Boone cares about what shoes you wear,” Jack said, glancing at her over his shoulder.
“He doesn’t. I just want to look hot for him. Remind him that he’s already got his number one fan, and she’s right at home waiting for him.”
Jack frowned, and seemed as if he was going to say something before shaking his head. He rinsed off a platter, and then a wooden salad bowl, and placed both on the counter. “So how is Boone?”
Her heart ached a little. “Good.” It killed her that Boone had to leave right after the service at the cemetery. She’d wanted him here for the reception at the house. She’d needed him here. But he’d already missed two days of games so he jumped on a plane and was rushing back to Florida for the end of Spring Training.
“It’s good he came for the services,” Jack said quietly, as if he able to read her mind.
Sarah swallowed around the lump in her throat. “I’m glad his manager let him come.”
“Your Dad was glad to see him.”
“I just wished he could have stayed for the whole day, and gone home tomorrow or with us on Sunday. It’s so much easier flying when Boone’s along. He’s so patient with the kids and he can manage all the bags—“ she broke off, hating that she was beginning to sound pathetic. She had a great life, a great husband, great kids—so much to be thankful for—but she did wish she had more time with Boone. It was the one thing she couldn’t seem to get enough of, with him always packing and unpacking, his suitcase a constant on the bench at the foot of their bed.
But it wouldn’t be long before he retired. He’d be thirty-nine soon, in just a couple weeks, and that was ancient in baseball. Grandpa, the rookies called him. The rookies weren’t far off. There weren’t many players Boone’s age in the majors who could still hit the ball like Boone. But then, Boone was special. He always had been.
“Heard he had a great Spring Training,” Jack said.
She nodded, relaxing a little. “It was a great Spring Training.”
“JJ said Boone had three home runs last week.”
“He hasn’t hit this well in a long time,” she said, wanting to be excited about the new season but dreading it, too. There was always so much to worry about. Team politics, trades, injuries, Boone’s performance at plate, the fickle fans, the groupies.
Sarah shuddered and stopped herself there, not wanting to think about the girls or groupies tonight. They were part of baseball–a fact of life–but they didn’t have to bring her down tonight. It’d been such a hard week…a hard year…
“How’s your dad holding up?” Jack asked, glancing at her as he rinsed a massive Pyrex bowl that had been filled with potato salad earlier.
“Okay. I think he’s reverted to his firefighter role—focus and get through it.”
“I’ve been amazed at his composure.”
“So have we,” she said, remembering the noon funeral Mass at St. Cecilia, and the graveside service after. The church had been packed, and almost everyone followed over to the cemetery. Dad had been quiet, and attentive, during both services. It wasn’t until the end of the graveside service, when the casket was lowered, that he went down on one knee, bent his head, and cried.
Those who’d remained left for the house then, everybody moving on to the reception, except for Boone and Tommy Jr who stayed behind with Dad. Eventually they accompanied him back to the house for the reception, and then Sarah had just enough time to give Boone a quick hug and kiss before he jumped in a cab and took off for the airport.
Jack reached for a damp dishtowel, dried his hands one final time before crossing the floor to toss the wet towel into a white plastic basket in the laundry room next door. “I think that’s it,” he said.
“You deserve a medal of valor,” Sarah said, sliding off the stool and stretching.
“I’m a hero?” he teased.
“You are,” she answered. “Absolutely. You’ve been there for Meg, and that’s what counts.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“I do. Meg told me how amazing you’ve been. You’ve cancelled your trips to DC, and you’ve been managing the house and kids so Meg could be with Mom as much as possible. That’s pretty cool.”
He shrugged uneasily. “I cared about your mom. And I care about Meg. It’s the least I can do.”
Sarah frowned, thrown by the way he said, I care about Meg. It didn’t sound right. Shouldn’t he have said, I love Meg? “You and Meg, ok?”
His shoulders twisted. “I don’t know. They are what they are.”
That definitely did not sound good. “Things still rocky?”
He made a face as he shrugged again. “We have our ups and downs. Sometimes it feels like more downs than ups.”
“But you haven’t thrown in the towel yet,” she said, trying to be encouraging.
Sarah heard the weariness in his voice and her chest tightened. “I think so,” she answered, knowing that she and Boone had been through a difficult couple of years, but she couldn’t imagine life without him. He was as important to her as oxygen—not that her sisters thought she should love any man that much. “Boone always says—“ she broke off as Kit entered the kitchen, carrying Ella, who was crying inconsolably.
“There’s your mommy,” Kit crooned, kissing Ella’s wet flushed cheek. “I told you we’d find her. Your mommy didn’t go anywhere. No need to cry. She’s right here talking to Uncle Jack.”
“Come here, baby,” Sarah said, taking her daughter from Kit. “What’s wrong? Why such a sad face?”
“I want Daddy,” Ella wailed. “I want my house. I want to go home. And I hate Brennan. He’s so mean.”
Checking her smile, Sarah cuddled her five year old. “What did Brennan do this time, sweet pea?”
“He said he was going to bury me like Grandma—“
“He’s not!” Sarah interrupted, looking at Kit over her daughter’s head. “That’s a terrible thing for him to say.”
“I told him the same thing,” Kit said with mock sternness, her blue eyes warm. “He’s with Dad, having a time out in the dining room right now.”
“I don’t want to get buried!” Great crocodile tears rolled down Ella’s face. “I don’t want to be covered up with dirt. Why did they cover Grandma with dirt?”
“Because Grandma died,” Sarah said gently.
“And so she went to Heaven to be with God and Jesus and Mary and all the saints and angels,” Meg added, entering the kitchen and leaning against the doorframe.
“Is Grandma with angels now?” Ella asked, looking into her mother’s eyes.
Sarah nodded. “Yes, and they’re going to keep Grandma company, and make sure she won’t be lonely.”
Ella reached up to touch Sarah’s face, her small hand gentle on her mother’s cheek. “Can we go see her?”
“Someday.” Sarah kissed Ella. “But not now, because Daddy would miss us, and Grandpa needs us. Maybe we should go see Grandpa now?”
“And then we can go home?”
“Not to our house. But maybe to Aunt Meg and Uncle Jack’s. We’re staying with Aunt Meg and Uncle Jack for a few nights, remember?”
“Daddy had to go back to Tampa Bay, but we’ll see him in a few days.”
“I want to go home now.”
“I think you’re tired, sweetheart. I know I’m tired. It’s been a really long day.” Sarah glanced at Meg, and then Jack. “Do you think we could leave soon?”
Meg glanced at Jack, and Jack nodded.
“I’ll round up the kids,” Meg said. “Let Dad know we’re leaving.”
“Great.” Sarah kissed Ella’s cheek, snuggling her closer, needing her sweet girl’s warmth tonight. “I’ll get Brennan and we’ll say our goodbyes.”
An hour and a half later, Sarah was in her pajamas in bed in the guest room on the second floor of Meg and Jack’s big shingled house in Santa Rosa. Ella slept next to her, and eight-year-old Brennan was on the floor in his sleeping bag, wearing headphones and watching a movie on his laptop.
“Need anything?” Meg asked, hovering in the doorway. “Water, tea, something to eat?”
Sarah shook her head and pushed heavy honey-blond hair from her face, wishing she’d pulled it back in a loose ponytail for bed. “I’m good, Meg.”
“You’re sure? I can go make you something—”
“I’m fine. Really. Don’t worry so much.”
Meg’s shoulders lifted and fell. “I just want you comfortable.”
“And I am.” Sarah glanced down at Ella where she slept curled on her side, facing Sarah, her thumb popped into her mouth. Ella only did that when she was stressed and it made Sarah’s chest ache. “What a strange, long day.”
“And a strange, long year,” Meg agreed, her voice husky. “This time last year we thought everything was wonderful. Mom was healthy. We were all good, and then just weeks later at our Girls’ Getaway, we found out the cancer was back and there was nothing to be done.” Suddenly she crossed the room, adjusted the heavy pale green velvet drapes, which had been drawn for the night, making sure there was no crack between fabric panels. “It was brutal . . . all those months waiting for Mom to die.”
“Praying for a miracle,” Sarah added.
“She deserved one,” Meg said, exhaling hard as she crossed her arms over her chest.
Sarah reached out to her. “Come, sit,” she insisted, waiting for Meg to take her hand and then take a seat on the edge of the bed next to her. “You okay?”
Meg blinked away tears. “No. You?”
Sarah’s throat and eyes burned as she shook her head. “No. Miss her, Meg. Miss her so much already—” She broke off, sucked in air, tears trembling on her lashes.
“She was my best friend. She gave the best advice. And even though I live on the other side of the country, she still managed to be part of everything. Calling, sending cards, little texts, and her Facebook messages . . . those updates . . . hilarious.” Sarah wiped away tears, trying to smile through her tears and failing. “What are we going to do without her?”
Meg’s lower lip quivered. “Try to make her proud.”
“Yeah.” Sarah was quiet a moment, thinking about her mom, her sisters, the whole family. “What do you think Dad’s doing right now?”
“Probably watching TV with Tommy,” Meg said.
Sarah nodded. It’s how she pictured him right now, too. Dad was a simple man. He liked his routine. “I wonder how he feels . . . not having had a chance to say a last good-bye.”
Meg shot Sarah a swift glance. “It was probably hard for him, not being there at the very end, but I don’t think he blames Brianna.”
Unlike me, Sarah thought fiercely, meeting Meg’s gaze. “Yes, I am upset with Brianna. Yes, I feel cheated. I needed that final good-bye. I wanted to be there at the end with Mom, too.”
“But maybe Brianna was right,” Meg said carefully. “Maybe Mom couldn’t let go when we were all there. Maybe it was too hard for her to leave us, when we were around the bed, hanging on to her for dear life.”
“Of course we were hanging on to her for dear life. We loved her.” Sarah drew her knees up to her chest, defensive, even as the ache filled her chest, heavy, suffocating. “I just can’t believe she’d want to . . . go . . . without me there.” There was a defiant note in her voice but she didn’t care. “I thought I’d be the one, holding her hand, at the end.” Not Bree.
“We’ll never know why Mom chose to let go then, but she had to have a reason. You know Mom never did anything by chance.”
Suddenly Sarah didn’t want to do this anymore, talk about Mom anymore, talk about death and dying and letting go. She’d spent so much of her life letting go, saying good-bye, leaving friends, starting over in new cities with new teams. Since she’d married Boone he’d been traded five times, which meant five huge moves. But even when they were settled with one team, she wasn’t. Because Boone wasn’t settled. He was constantly traveling and training and nursing a real, or perceived, injury. And when he was home, she fluttered around him, alternately thrilled and resentful. And when he was gone, she was constantly trying to stay busy, trying to kill time, trying to feel stable and content even though in her heart, she was lonely and empty and just getting emptier . . .
“It doesn’t matter,” Sarah said roughly, collecting her long hair and drawing it over her shoulder. “It’s not as if we can bring her back. All we can do is move forward.”
Meg reached out to cup Sarah’s cheek. “You were always Mom’s baby. She absolutely adored you, Sarah. You know that, don’t you?”
Uncomfortable, Sarah pulled back, leaning away from Meg’s touch, but not before she saw the flicker of hurt in Meg’s eyes. “Sorry, Mags,” she mumbled. “Just . . . overwhelmed.”
“I understand,” Meg said, rising, smiling, and yet the shadow remained in her eyes.
Sarah’s chest squeezed tight. “You’re a great big sister, you know that, don’t you?”
Meg was silent a moment. “I’ve tried. But I don’t think I’ve always succeeded. Like last year when I—”
“That’s the past.”
Meg’s brow creased. “Is it?”
Sarah nodded, definitely not wanting to go there either, since the whole affair thing was still a sensitive topic for everyone. “Jack was really helpful tonight. He did all the dishes at Mom and Dad’s . . . mountains of dishes.”
“You don’t think it’s good?”
“It’s great. And it’s what you or I or any of us would do at a family member’s funeral.”
Meg shook her head. “Nothing. Just tired. I should probably go check on the kids and go to bed.”
As if on cue, Sarah’s phone vibrated on the nightstand. “Boone,” she said, reaching for her phone, reading his one word text. Here.
“He’s landed,” she added, glancing up at Meg, feeling as though an immense weight had tumbled from her shoulders.
“That’s good. I know you never relax when he’s in the air.”
“It’s silly. I know nothing’s going to happen,” Sarah answered, quickly texting Boone back. Yay! Glad you’re on the ground. Call me when you can.
Meg smiled indulgently as she watched Sarah text her husband. “You know air travel is so safe these days. There hasn’t been a big accident in the U.S. in years—”
“Don’t say that. You’ll jinx him for sure that way.”
Sarah looked up, eyes wide. “Of course I am!”
“Meg, I’m married to a professional baseball player. Ball players are incredibly superstitious—”
“But that doesn’t mean you have to be.”
Sarah’s phone rang. “Boone,” she said, grinning.
Meg rolled her eyes. “Take the call. I’m heading to bed. See you in the morning.”
Sarah blew her a kiss. “Sleep good. And thanks, Meg. For everything.”
In the hall, Meg quietly closed the guest-room door so Sarah could have some privacy, and headed toward her girls’ rooms. Tessa and Gabi were both already asleep, but sixteen-year-old JJ was at his desk, Skyping with his girlfriend, Heather. When he spotted his mother in the doorway, he tersely signaled for her to leave.
“Simply saying good night,” she said mildly. “Just making sure you’re okay . . . with the funeral and all.”
JJ’s glare suddenly softened and he said something to Heather before hitting the disconnect on the computer. Springing from his chair, he went to his mom and wrapped his arms around her in a quick, guilty hug. “Sorry. And I’m sorry about Grandma,” he muttered. “Sorry for you, too. It must be awful losing your mom. I would hate to lose you.”
Meg, who’d kept it together for much of the day, blinked to clear the hot, stinging sensation from her eyes. “Well, I have no intention of going anywhere, and Grandma was a really good mom.”
“I loved Grandma.”
“I know. And she loved you.”
JJ pulled away and folded his arms across his chest. He’s grown five inches in the past six months and had filled out through the chest and shoulders, showing an early hint of the Brennan brawn. Not that he was a Brennan, but he had her brother and father’s athletic ability and he hoped to make it to the pros, like Sarah’s husband. “Why did she have to die?” he demanded.
Meg shrugged. “Something about God’s plan.”
“Don’t get mad at my language, but I think it’s a fucked-up plan.”
“Can’t disagree, babe, but let’s not use foul language.”
“But it is. She suffered so much—” He broke off, took a step away, and rubbed at his watering eyes. “So not right.”
“Grandpa’s going to really miss her, won’t he?”
Meg swallowed around the lump filling her throat. It’d been such a long, hard couple of months, but hopefully Mom was in a better place. Or at least, a place without pain. “Yeah. They’ve been together a long time.”
“And they were happy, weren’t they? They always seemed to be in a good mood when they were together. Always laughing and joking around.”
She nearly reached out to touch his jaw with the straggly chin stubble, his facial hair still light and thin, but crossed her arms instead, not wanting to invade his space. She’d learned that it was better to let him come to her, to reach for her, otherwise she could end up rejected. “They definitely enjoyed each other.”
“Did they ever fight?”
“They had their moments. Grandpa isn’t always easy to live with and Grandma was never a pushover, but they were committed to each other, and very committed to the family. It’s why their marriage worked.”
“They were best friends, weren’t they?”
JJ’s forehead creased and he stared across the room, to his desktop computer. “Were you and Dad ever like that? . . . Best friends?”
Meg’s mouth opened, then closed. It took her a second to think back, to the early days of her marriage, and her first thought was how new and exciting it had all been, that big move with Jack to California, her state, which then made her reflect on how different it’d been for him, and how uncomfortable he was with her large family. From the start he’d been overwhelmed by her tight-knit Brennan family, and resisted their many traditions—family summers and holidays in Capitola at the beach house, big gatherings for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, winter ski trips to Tahoe, brunches every Sunday, Saturday barbecues, baptisms, and ball games, never mind casual family dinners.
No, Jack hadn’t enjoyed her family holidays and traditions. He’d never come out and said so, but she’d suspected that he found them a little too loud, a little too blue collar, a little Catholic. The Roberts family, which could trace its ancestors to the Mayflower, had been educated, affluent, and aloof, as well as fractured by a highly contentious divorce and custody battle that lasted for years, scarring Jack permanently.
Meg had loved Jack anyway, adoring his brilliant mind and his talent for sensitive architectural preservation and design. She’d learned that he needed his space, and he was most creative when left to himself, and so she gave him his space and told herself that the space was good for her, too. She was, and always had been, very independent. She didn’t need a lot of attention. Mary Margaret Brennan Roberts excelled at self-sufficiency.
“Your dad is still my best friend,” she said now to JJ, which stood for “Jack Jr.” “He’s amazing. There aren’t many people as smart as he is.”
“I thought Aunt Kit was your best friend.”
Meg’s suddenly felt the weight of the last week settle in her gut and burn in her chest. There were few people as loving and supportive as her sister Kit. “We are really close.”
“So she is your best friend?”
“Can’t a girl have two best friends?”
Needing to escape, she kissed JJ’s cheek. “I’m going to bed. Don’t stay up too late, okay?”
“I won’t. I can’t. I’ve got the last SAT test study session, and still have to take a pre-test in the morning.”
“You mean, after Mass.”
“I’m taking the test in the morning.”
“JJ, its Palm Sunday tomorrow.”
“It’s a holy day.”
“Went to church today, don’t want to go tomorrow, and technically it’s not a holy day, but the start to the Holy Week.”
Meg stared at him for a long moment, flattened. She was too tired to do this. Too tired to do anything but go to bed. Sleep. “Fine. Stay home, and take the test. You just better ace the SAT.”
He grinned a lopsided grin. “I’ll do my best.”
In her bedroom, Meg discovered that the lights had been dimmed and Jack was already in bed, on his side, his back to her.
She gently closed the door, retreating to the master bath to wash her face and brush her teeth. She performed her nightly routine swiftly without looking at herself. She was too tired to look at herself, not interested in seeing her face, not wanting to see her fatigue, or her sadness.
Impossible to believe Mom was gone. Mom couldn’t be gone. There was still so much life ahead. Still so much time. Baseball games and ballet recitals and high school graduation and weddings . . .
Her girls would one day walk down the aisle and her mom wouldn’t be there to see it. Her mom wouldn’t be there for any of it.
Meg cried, bent over the bathroom sink, splashing water on her face. Tired. She was just so tired. And sad. But that was natural. This was all natural. Part of life. Birth and death and change. She didn’t have to like it, just accept it. And adapt.
In bed, she quietly slid into her spot, carefully fluffing and adjusting her pillows as she eased under the duvet. The sheets were cool and smooth, the softest, lightest cotton. Her favorite indulgence. She didn’t care about expensive clothes or jewelry or cars, but she loved quality sheets. Good sheets made a great bed.
“You were gone awhile,” Jack said, breaking the silence. His voice was clear, firm. He hadn’t been asleep.
“Talked a long time to Sarah, then to JJ,” Meg answered, rolling over to look at him. His eyes were open, his gaze fixed on her.
“Sarah’s a wreck, and JJ just wanted to talk.”
“What did he have to say?”
Meg hesitated, studying Jack’s strong, patrician features and unsmiling mouth. He didn’t smile much anymore, and suddenly she wondered if he ever had. “He talked about Grandma and Grandpa, and how much Grandpa would miss Grandma. He said they were best friends. I agreed. And then he asked . . .” Her voice trailed off as she struggled to voice JJ’s question. “He asked . . . if we had ever been like that. Best friends. And I told him yes.”
Jack didn’t say anything. His expression didn’t change. But Meg felt that acidic knot return to her stomach, the one that seemed to live there all the time, making her reach for Tums and Rolaids several times a day.
“A long time ago,” he said finally.
She pressed the pillow closer to her cheek. Her face felt so hot, and yet on the inside she felt so cold. “Not that long ago.”
“Seems like forever.”
“We’ve had a hard year.”
“It wasn’t good before that.”
He was referring to her affair. Her affair, her fault, her responsibility. And it was no one’s fault but hers. She’d be doing penance forever, not because anyone asked it of her, but because she owed it. She’d messed up, badly; and nine months later, she still found it impossible to forgive herself. Maybe one day she could. Maybe when she and Jack were good again, solid again. She looked forward to the day. Prayed for the day. It was hard living with so much self-hatred. “It’ll get better.”
“I’m not happy.”
Meg exhaled slowly. “I’m sorry.”
“Are we working?” he asked.
“I’m not unhappy.”
“But are you happy?”
Her eyes stung and the acid from her stomach seemed to be bubbling up her esophagus and into her throat. “This is a kind of tough time to be talking about happiness. Mom’s just died. The funeral was this morning. We had two hundred and fifty people over to the house—”
“But that’s the point. We’re all going to die. Death is inevitable. In fact, some would say we’re dying every day.”
“I disagree. As long as you’re alive, you’re alive. When you’re dead, you’re gone—”
“Unless you’re not really alive. Unless you’re just going through the motions.” Jack’s mouth flattened, and a small muscle pulled and popped in his jaw. “Like we are.”
You mean, like you are, Meg silently corrected, closing her eyes, shoulders rising up toward her ears.
“This isn’t working with us, Meg.”
She didn’t want to hear this, not now, not today. She was too sad. Things had been too hard. “We’re tired, Jack, worn out—”
“I leave tomorrow for D.C., and I think we need to really think about the future, and what we want. We’re not getting any younger. We deserve to be happy. You deserve to be happy—”
“I’m not unhappy, Jack!” she cried, sitting up, knocking away a tear before it could fall. “I’m just tired. It’s been a rough couple of weeks, and a very long day, and I will not lose you now, not after everything we’ve been through. We’re good together. We have the kids. We have a history. We have a future.”
Meg’s lips parted but no sound came out. She balled her hands into fists and pressed them against her thighs. She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t. Things would work out. They always worked out. She just had to be strong. “Have faith, Jack! We will get through this.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m not trying to be mean, Meg. I’m just being honest.”