Comfort & Joy
Page 9

 Kristin Hannah

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Once there, we move quickly and quietly. Bobby runs upstairs, then returns with a poinsettia-decorated red box full of lights. He makes this trip several times, until there are four boxes and a tree stand on the stone hearth.
It takes us almost twenty minutes to get the tree in the stand and positioned correctly. I am no help at all, which wouldn’t surprise my sister. Bobby and I giggle at our ineptitude and hush each other. Every few minutes we go to the window and make sure that Daniel is busy. It isn’t until I stand back to inspect the tree that I really feel it.
A tug of loss and longing. I can’t help remembering how it used to be between me and Stacey at this magical time of year. Like the time she gave me the Holly Hobbie doll Santa had given her, just because I wanted it more. And there was the hellacious camping trip when we were little. Mom had been in full headband-wearing, tie-dyed T-shirt glory in those days. Singing and smoking and drinking through seven desert states. Stacey’s sense of humor had kept me sane.
Now she’ll be having Christmas morning without me. That’s never happened before, not in the whole of our lives. I believe in reconciliation for Daniel and Bobby, but what about for me and Stacey?
“Why are you crying?”
I wipe my eyes and shrug. How can I possibly fold all that longing into something as small as words?
We pause for a moment, taking strength from each other, then we get to work. I decide to let him choose and place all the ornaments and lights. It’s his tree, after all; my job is encouragement and understanding.
He goes to the box. Choosing takes a long time. Finally, he reaches down and finds an ornament. It is an intricately painted globe that reflects the rainforest. He shows it to me. “My mommy made this one.”
“It’s beautiful.”
He puts the ornament on the tree, then returns to the box. For the next hour he moves in a ceaseless, circular pattern, from the box to the tree and back again. At each ornament, he says something, gives me some piece of himself.
Finally, he comes to the last ornament in the box. “This was her favorite. I made it in day care.”
He hands it to me. I take it gently, mindful of the fragility of both its structure and sentiment. It is a macaroni and ribbon frame, painted silver. Inside is a photograph of Bobby and a beautiful dark-haired woman with sad eyes.
“That’s her,” he says.
Below the picture someone has written: Bobby and Maggie/2001.
“She’s lovely,” I say because there’s nothing else. I wish he’d turn to me, let me hug him, but he stands stiffly beside me. Pushing the hair from his eyes, I let my hand linger on his warm cheek. “It’ll get better, Bobby. I promise.”
He nods, sniffs. I know he’s heard those words before and doesn’t believe them.
“She drove into a tree at night,” he says. “It was raining. The day after Halloween.”
So recently. No wonder he and Daniel are so wounded.
I wish I had something to say that would comfort him, but I’ve lost a parent. I know that only time will help him.
“I didn’t say good-bye,” he says. “I was mad ’cause she made me turn off X-Men.”
My heart twists at that. Regret, I know, is a powerful remainder; it can bring the strongest man to his knees. One small boy is no match for it at all. No wonder he “sees” his mom.
He looks at me through watery eyes. Tears spike his lashes. The ugly purple bruise reminds me how broken he is on the inside. “I told her I hated her.”
“She knows you were just mad.”
“You won’t leave me, will you?” he asks quietly.
For the first time I glimpse the danger I’ve walked in to. I’m a woman running away from trouble; that’s hardly what this boy needs.
The silence between us seems to thicken; in it, I hear the distant sound of water slapping against the dock and the clock ticking. I can hear Bobby’s sigh, too, as quiet as a bedtime kiss.
“I’m here for you now,” I say at last.
He hears the word that matters: now.
“Bobby . . .”
“I get it. People leave.” He turns away from me and stares at the Christmas tree. For both of us, I think, some of today’s shine has been tarnished now.
People leave.
At eight, he already knows this sad truth.
The Christmas tree takes up the entire corner of the lobby, between the fireplace and the windows. Dozens of ornaments adorn the scrawny limbs; there are so many the tree looks full and lush, even though they are oddly placed. It is, in every way, a tree decorated by a young boy. On the rough-hewn wooden mantel is a thick layer of white felt covered with glitter. Dozens of miniature houses and storefronts dot the “snow.” Tiny street lamps and horse-drawn carriages and velvet-clad carolers line the imaginary streets. Bobby’s favorite Christmas album—the Charlie Brown soundtrack—is playing on the stereo. Music floats through the speakers and drifts down the hallway.
He looks toward the window. “Is he coming?”
It is the fifth time he’s asked me this question in five minutes. We are both nervous. An hour ago, it seemed like a good idea to decorate the house. Now, I’m not so sure. It seems . . . arrogant on my part, like the actions of a flighty relative who means to help and causes harm.
Last night, as I lay in my bed, spinning dreams of today to fight the nightmares of my real life, I imagined Daniel happy with my choice.
Now I see the naïveté of that.
He will be angry; I’m more and more certain of it. He won’t want to be reminded of the past, or of his own carelessness with his son’s holiday. He’ll see me as an interloper, a problem-causer.
Bobby sits on the hearth, then stands. He goes to the window again. “How long has it been?”
“About thirty seconds.”
“D’you think he’ll be mad?”
“No,” I say after too long a pause to be credible. Both of us hear my uncertainty. Bobby, who has been talking to a ghost for two months, seems attuned to the tiniest nuance of sound.
“He used to love Christmas. He said it was the best day of the year.” He pauses. “Then Mommy and me moved out here and they got divorced.” He goes to the window, stares out.
I can see his watery reflection in the window.
“He kept telling Mommy he was gonna visit me but he never did.”
I have no idea what to say to that. I remember the day my own father left. I was just about Bobby’s age, and I spent more than a decade waiting for a reunion that never came. My mom tried to ease my hurt with reassurances, but words fall short when you’re listening for a knock at the door. Bobby knows about silence, how it leaves a mark on you. Then again, I know about divorce, too. It’s possible that Bobby doesn’t have the whole story. It’s never one person’s fault. The thought shocks me. It’s the first time I’ve admitted it to myself. “The thing is,” I say slowly, “he’s here now. Maybe you should give him a chance.”
Bobby doesn’t answer.
Outside, a bright sun pushes through the clouds. The lake looks like a sheet of fiery glass.
“Here he comes!” Bobby runs to me, stands close.
The door opens.
Daniel walks into the lodge. He’s wearing a pair of insulated coveralls, unzipped to the waist. Dirty gloves hang from his back pocket. His black hair is a messy, curly mass; his green eyes look tired. “Hey, there,” he says to us without smiling. He’s halfway to the registration desk when he stops and turns toward the tree. “What have you done, boyo?”
I feel myself tensing up. It would be so easy for him to say the wrong thing now . . .
“We done it. Joy and me.”
“Joy? Our house is her business now, is it?” he says quietly as he walks over to the tree.
Bobby glances worriedly at me.
We shouldn’t have done it—I shouldn’t have done it. That truth is bright and shiny now. I know nothing about them, not really. Sometimes memories hurt too much to be put on display. I am the grown-up here, the one who should have known better. I have to soften it for Bobby. “Daniel,” I say, taking a step forward. “Surely . . .”
“You used all her favorite ornaments,” Daniel says, slowly touching a white angel ornament.
“You bought her that one,” Bobby says. “Remember? At the farmer’s market by Nana and Papa’s house.”
Slowly, Daniel turns to face us. He looks still and stiff, like a man chiseled from granite. I wonder how he can bear it, the distance from his son. “Where’s the star?” he asks at last.
Bobby glances at me. “It’s on the table. We couldn’t reach the top.”
Daniel reaches down for the hammered tin star on the table. He is about to place it on the top of the tree; then he stops and turns to Bobby. “Maybe you and I can do it together?”
I hear the uncertainty in Daniel’s voice, the fear that his son won’t comply, and it reminds me how fragile we all are, how easily we can wound one another, especially when love is involved.
I close my eyes for just a second, awash in regret. When I open my eyes, Bobby is moving toward his father. The sight of them coming together makes me smile.
Daniel scoops Bobby into his arms and stands up. Daniel hands his son the star, and Bobby puts it on the tree.
They step back, admiring their work.
“It’s grand,” Daniel says. I hear a thickness in his voice.
“Tell Joy, Dad. It was her idea.”
“I’m sure she knows I appreciate it.”
“No. Tell her. She’s right there.”
Slowly, they turn to face me.
When Daniel looks at me, there’s no mistaking the sheen in his green eyes. I can tell that he is a man who loves his son fiercely, maybe more than he knows how to bear. In that moment I forgive all his rudeness. Lord knows I understand how grief and love can break you. “Thank you, Joy.”
“You could talk to her, Daddy. She’s nice.”
“I’ve not talked to women well in a long time. It doesn’t come so easily anymore.”
“It’s okay,” I say, feeling oddly connected to him. We are survivors of divorce, both of us; victims of a common war. Though I’ve been divorced for months, I hardly feel single. I feel . . . halved, or broken perhaps, and Daniel is right: conversation no longer comes as easily as it once did.
That’s all it takes—the word, divorce—and I’m plunged back into reality. Suddenly I’m thinking of Stacey and Thom, of who we all used to be, then I’m thinking of the tree strapped to my Volvo, dying in the blackness of long-term parking.
“Joy, are you okay?”
Bobby’s voice pulls me back. I smile at him, hoping it looks real. “I’m fine.”
“Of course she’s okay,” Daniel says, “it’s Christmastime. And now, as much as I’d love to chat with you and Joy, it’s time for your doctor’s appointment.”
“Aw, nuts,” Bobby whines. “I don’t wanna go.”
“I know, boyo.”
“Can Joy come? Please?” he pleads, looking from his father to me. “I’m scared.”