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Porch Lights(3)
Dorothea Benton Frank

They’ve been living apart now for almost eleven years. I know they’re lonely without each other, but wow, are they ever stubborn. They’re like two mules. At least I think they’re lonely, and they must miss each other. Dad has never been out with another woman, to the best of my knowledge, and Momma has never dated either. If anybody’s stepping out on the other I don’t want to know.

When I have asked him why he doesn’t just go home, he says he’s waiting for Momma to cool down. For eleven years? Hell, volcanoes cool faster. When I ask her how Dad’s doing, she says Dad’s just gone fishing up in Murrells Inlet and she imagines he’ll come home when he’s had enough sun. I know, I know. It’s their business, but when Jimmy died, I needed my parents. Both of them. And so did Charlie.

So Momma came to Jimmy’s funeral and Dad stayed home because Momma said she couldn’t be in the same room with him. She said the thought of having to look at him made her nerves act up. She always said that as though her nerves were a separate entity with a will of their own. How could I forget that? I’d been walking on eggshells around her my whole life, living in fear of making her nerves act up. Isn’t that great? I was in such a state of disbelief and anguish over losing Jimmy that I didn’t object, but it was typical of her to think of herself and her nerves first and to never give a thought that maybe I needed my father too. Here we have a fine snapshot of the differences between us.

Momma stayed for a week and a half. The first thing she did was ask me with a smile when was the last time we had pushed all the furniture away from the walls to clean. Was she implying we lived in squalor? Didn’t she realize how long I’d been away? I just let her take over and do whatever she wanted. As if I could have stopped her anyway. Annie Britt was a whirling dervish with paper towels in one hand and a sponge in the other. She reorganized all our closets, packing up most of Jimmy’s clothes for Goodwill, something I was loath to do. I kept his sweaters and a few other things, like neckties and his FDNY uniform, that I thought Charlie might like to have one day. Next she cleaned the bathroom and kitchen until they glistened. Have at it! She filled the freezer with single-serving containers of soups, stews, and pasta sauces, and she helped me write thank-you notes for all the flowers and cakes that people brought and brought—to her surprise, as though people in the North didn’t offer condolences like people in the South.

“We mostly bring hams and pound cakes,” she said. “I mean, how much baked ziti can a person consume?”

“The same amount as ham,” I said and thought, Oh, brother.

Charlie’s toys were dusted and rearranged on his shelves, and all the while she dusted and rearranged them, Charlie sat on the side of his bed telling her in fragmented mumbles what each one meant to him. As he spoke, he was so subdued that my heart ached for my little chatterbox to reappear.

The week after she left, Charlie’s troubles mushroomed. He seemed to have lost interest in everything. Even his skateboard, the one physical activity he was crazy about, stood by the door, abandoned as though the idea of fun belonged to his past. I had to argue with him to go to school. Maureen was right. He wasn’t eating enough for a boy his age. He didn’t even want to take a bath. He began having nightmares about terrorists and burning buildings. Then he dreamed that I died and that he was all alone, lost somewhere in a place like Central Park surrounded by strangers and no one to help him. After one of those horrific episodes, he would appear at the foot of my bed sweaty and shaking. I’d get up, throw my arm around his shoulders, and lead him back to his room. After a few nights of putting him back to bed, not once but many times, I let him bring in his comforter and sleep on the floor next to me. Obviously, I knew Charlie sleeping in my room could become a bad habit, but I didn’t care. My poor boy was just as distraught as I was, and we were both exhausted from grief and lack of sleep.

Every night after we lost Jimmy, I’d lie in bed in the pitch-black dark just thinking. It wasn’t that I couldn’t accept his death. God knows, I’d seen plenty of death in the hills of Afghanistan—men, women, and children, torn apart and literally blown up by the insanity of their own countrymen. And what happened to the Americans was just as bad and sometimes worse. Hell, I’d seen the Taliban use children as suicide bombers for the promise of candy. No, it wasn’t about death per se. It was that I was just completely and utterly heartbroken; that’s all.

The day I married Jimmy was the happiest day of my life, next to the day when I held my newborn Charlie in my arms. Our love and the love I felt for our little family pulled me through a war. Overseas, I was so careful all the time because coming home to them was always on my mind’s front burner. Charlie was my sweetheart, and Jimmy McMullen was the only man I had ever loved. I would never get over the horror of losing him. Never. And now I worried that maybe Charlie wouldn’t either.

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