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Porch Lights(4)
Dorothea Benton Frank

I tried so hard not to get upset in front of Charlie, knowing it wouldn’t do him any good and believing I had to be strong for him. But alone in my bed at night, tears would come, memories of the three of us by the score would come rushing through my brain in some kind of a landslide of scenes, skipping from last Christmas to the summer before, Charlie’s first day of school, holiday programs, another summer preceding it, telling Jimmy I was pregnant, on and on. By some godforsaken hour I’d sleep again in fits and starts, only to wake up once more and remember again that he was gone. In so many ways, Jimmy’s death was unbelievable. I’d stare at the ceiling, waiting for the alarm to ring and worrying about what would become of us. Intellectually, I knew that eventually I would somehow adjust. Eventually, I would adjust. But what about Charlie? How deep was his wound?

Finally I called my father, and the next thing I knew I was weeping as though the news were brand new.

“I’m getting on a plane today,” he said.

Dad arrived that night to assess the situation and to offer what comfort he could. He worked his grandfatherly magic on Charlie, and for a little while it seemed that my boy was perking up. Dad took him to the Museum of Natural History one day and on another to the Yogi Berra Museum out in Montclair, New Jersey, where Yogi Berra himself happened to be that afternoon. He signed a baseball for Charlie that he carried around with him wherever he went, including the dinner table. They went out for ice cream every night after all the dishes were washed and put away. Dad told Charlie stories, wonderful stories about how he used to churn peach ice cream when he was a kid, and Charlie marveled at the fact that you could actually make your own. They were still talking about making ice cream when they came home one night.

“It’s a heckuva lot better than what you can buy in the stores,” Dad said with a laugh.

“Can you teach me how to make it?” Charlie asked.

“You betcha booties, baby! You can count on it! Get your momma to bring you down south to see me, and we’ll make ice cream every day.”

“Even blueberry?” Charlie asked.

“Even blueberry,” Dad said.

“You still have that old churn?” I asked.

“It’s somewhere under your Momma’s house,” he said. “You bring Charlie and we’ll find it.”

Dad’s magic had a shelf life with an unfortunately short expiration date. Within just a few days of his departure, I began to see all the signs of Charlie’s depression returning. God, I felt so impotent and so deeply sad to realize there was so little I could do for him or for myself that could change a thing. And feeling that useless made me more depressed. But hell would freeze before I would tell my mother. She’d have me in a shrink’s office in five minutes.

Who was I kidding? It was right after the Fourth of July. I knew it was time to head south, shrink or no shrink. It wasn’t that I didn’t have enough love to take care of Charlie on my own. It was anything but that. It was that I thought he needed to be buoyed by the love of everyone. Maybe the love of my parents, the friends of our family, and the island old salts would fill the air, he would breathe it in, and my little boy would be restored.

He was half sleeping, slouched against the window with his pillow bunched in between his shoulder and his cheek. His DS was in his lap, never too far from him. I know every mother in the world feels this, but my heart was so filled with love for him at that moment I thought it might burst.

I looked over at him for another moment and whispered, “Love you, baby.”

He grimaced a little, not liking being disturbed, and then he reached out and put his hand on my arm. It was a proprietary touch but also one seeking for reassurance that I was still there.

A few minutes later, he sat up rubbing his eyes with his fists. “Mom? Where do you think Dad is?”

“Heaven,” I said. “Don’t you?”

“Yeah, but you know, it’s like he’s still around. But not in a creepy way.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, like when before the end of the school year, I’d be studying for a hard test? It was sort of like he was there, telling me to keep at it, not to give up. Do you know what I mean?”

“Yes. I do know. And you want to know something else?”

“What?”

“It makes me feel a little better.”

“Yeah, but not for long enough.”

“I agree with you, but you know what? I think it would be mighty strange if we weren’t sad right now.”

“Yeah.”

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