Everything seemed too bright. The light of the sun was blinding, especially in the mood I had been in, that day. I wanted gray clouds, heavy rain, even thunder and lightning. The sunlight made the reality of that day even more unbelievable. I sat on a swing in our neighbourhood park; the creak of the chains echoed within the confines of the deserted park.
Small puffs of white from my breath formed in front of me. It spiralled and floated, My hands moved on its own to touch it, but it disappeared. Nothing seemed real to me anymore, least of all Nao's death.
Only a week ago she had been at home, kissing me goodbye before I left for the office. Feeding and changing Hailey's diaper, loving both her motherly and wifely duties. She always filled our home with her warmth and laughter. We'll never hear it again.
Now I was going to her funeral. Nao's funeral… even that sounded wrong. A person like Nao, always moving, full of so much energy, it didn't fit. Her funeral… I wanted to scream and yell, no you got the wrong person. Being the butt of many of her pranks throughout the years, it became habitual for me to be in the middle of unbelievable situations. This was probably the most unbelievable. So that's why I had been waiting for her to come out, dressed in her usual sweats, her hair pulled back in a messy pony tail, her infectious grin on her face as she said 'gotcha' for the millionth time. That grin, the one that always eased my mind.
I heard the crunch of gravel behind me. Turning around, I hoped. "Nao…?" It came out barely a whisper.
"Sam, how are you holding up?" The soft voice of Nao's mother drifted towards me; she was the only mother I ever knew. She stood there, her brows furrowed, marring her otherwise pretty face. Nao had the same stature as her mother, the same long black hair, even their features were alike. Nao's Japanese heritage was very strong in her appearance; the only thing she did get from her father's European side was the blue eyes. I closed my eyes and for that brief moment I imagined it was Nao walking towards me.
I let out a sigh as I opened my eyes. I looked up at the sky and pictured Naoko's smile. "I'm not holding up at all." I could hear my voice, it sounded so deadpan. I wanted to cry, I should be crying, but nothing was coming out. Maybe because I didn't believe it to be real. My hands tightened on the chains of the swing.
"Oh Sam, come here."
I was enveloped in her arms. I sat there motionless. "Mum, this can't be happening, right? It's all a joke, it has to be. Nao couldn't leave like that," I said.
"I know, I miss her too." Her hold on me tightened. I could feel her shudder.
I wrapped my arms around her hoping to find some comfort, but nothing changed. I still felt empty. The only thing that ever made me feel whole was Nao.
Before I met her, the only things all I ever knew were anger and abuse. Growing up with a drunk for a father didn't give me the best mindset about people. My father made me become the kind of person who didn't trust easily, least of all try to befriend others. So when I first met Nao, I had been a fourteen year old teen with a warped idea about social etiquette. I became used to staying quiet because if I spoke out at home my father would always hit me.
Thinking back, she tried so hard to make me talk that first month. The smile came easily to me now, as I rested my face against Mum's blouse. I missed Nao so much. My arms tightened around Mum. Her cold fingers lifted my face up to hers and smiled; it was strained.
"Come now, we need to be strong for Nao. She wouldn't want us to wallow," she said. Her chin was trembling slightly. I watched as she calmly mastered her emotions and smiled again. "Besides, Hailey is waiting for her dad."
At the mention of my daughter, my throat tightened up. She was the only piece of Nao I had left now. But I knew next to nothing about taking care of a newborn, I barely knew how to take care of myself sometimes. Love and family were the two things I thought I'd never have but when I met Nao, she brought it to me like a delicate gift.
"I can't do it without Nao," I murmured.
"What do you mean?" I heard her ask.
"I can't raise Hailey without her." There was silence as I sat there. I gazed up at her, her face was pinched and her eyes were red rimmed. Nao was her only daughter and they had always been really close, so no matter how much it hurt me, it had to have hurt her twice as much. "Mum, I'm sorry."
She shook her head. "Don't apologize. We'll get through this, somehow." She took a deep breath of the cold spring air. "Now let's go, we don't want to keep everyone waiting."
I nodded numbly as I stood up from the swing. I straightened my clothes. The chains of the swing rattled.
Hailey had been fussy all morning. Her little round face seemed to pucker into a frown so frequently that it started to look normal. She hadn't cried yet, but every time her little pink mouth started to tremble I got ready for the worst. On our way to the funeral, she slept in my arms, I tried to put her in her car seat but every time I did her face became an alarming red.
Everyone in the car was silent. Nao's dad was driving. His hands held the wheel, the fingers dug into it. Our eyes met in the rear view mirror, his blue eyes were red. He turned his face back on the road, as I looked away. Mum sat quietly in the front passenger seat. Her head rested against the window. Her shoulders shook slightly.
I turned away focusing on the scenery, the pain in the air was too much. There was nothing I could say to comfort anyone. Hailey started to fuss again. I brought her up to my shoulder and rocked her. It felt awkward and clumsy as I held her, but her tiny body slowly relaxed and fell back into a calm slumber.
While soothing Hailey, we had arrived at the funeral home. I sat there for a motionless minute not wanting to get out, not wanting to face reality.
The knock on the window pulled my focus to my left. I saw Kai, Nao's older brother and his wife Tracey. Tracey's face was pale and her eyes were puffy. Kai's face was calm but his eyes were red.
I opened the door and got out slowly not saying a word, Hailey in one hand her diaper bag in the other. I had been so careful not to irritate her but she still woke up with a stifled cry. Trying to rock her again, she slowly ceased her crying. I held her in front of me.
"Hi sweetheart. You okay?" I asked her as her big blue eyes looked up at me. She was like a mini Nao, every little feature on her face was the same. The small mop of black hair, the big blue eyes, even the lips were the same. That little pink mouth twisted into a frown again and let out a wail.
"You want me to take her?" asked Tracey. I looked at her with a thankful sigh.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah… it'll give me something to do…" she said. She reached for Hailey. Once Hailey was in Tracey's arms her crying only got louder. Tracey tried to calm her down but nothing was working.
"Here let me take her, she's been really fussy." Once Hailey was back in my arms she slowly quieted down.
"Come on, let's get inside," said Kai as he wrapped his arm around Tracey. Mum and Dad were already at the entrance. I took in a deep breath as I followed my family.
When I entered the building, the image of a black sea is what I pictured. Everyone sitting in the pews were the same, I couldn't differentiate one person from another. The only other thing that stuck in my mind, the dark mahogany casket sitting at the end of the room, the white flowers that adorned it and the picture of Nao. She had that infectious grin on her face, her cheeks were flushed and her hair tied in a messy tail. The way she always looked.
I stopped in the middle of the room, staring at the picture. I could almost hear her laughter. The weight of Hailey on my shoulder brought me back to reality. I hesitated for a second before making my way up to the front and peered into the open casket. Nao looked so peaceful and my hand automatically reached for her. Her skin was cold and no longer soft and pliant. The warmth that she always emitted was gone.
"Nao," I whispered. My eyes stung, but no tears. Tears were something I taught myself to stop; it was a sign of weakness. "I miss you." I kept staring at her serene face, just waiting for her to wake up, to laugh and take us both into a hug. My body trembled as I wished for her to open her eyes.
I felt a pair of hands grab my shoulders and pull me back. I turned to see Kai's frowning face.
"Sam, come on we need to take our seats," said Kai.
"But Nao might wake up, she always plays these jokes," I said still believing that she might be alive. I looked at Kai and saw the pained expression. I must have sounded crazy.
"Sam, she's not there anymore," he said.
"She can't leave us, Hailey needs her mother. What are we supposed to do without her?" I asked becoming frantic. The reality was breaking through my hopes that she was still there…somewhere.
"We'll figure it out. Now come on let's take out seats."
I followed him to the front of the pews. I sat down beside Mum; Hailey still nestled in my arm. Mum was already crying, her face pinched and red. Beside me Kai was consoling Tracey who was also in tears. I looked up at the man that went up to speak, he was old and unfamiliar.
"Thank you all for coming today to remember and celebrate the life of a loving daughter, wife and mother, Naoko…"
I stopped listening after that point. He didn't even know Nao. He was just reading out what someone had written for him. I didn't need someone like him telling me about my wife. I knew every little thing about her.
Naoko. I remember the day I asked her what her name meant. We were at her house doing a project. As we were finishing up I went to write our names down.
Naoko, what does your name mean in Japanese? I had asked her. She looked at me with her trademark grin. She leaned in close as if it was a big secret.
Then in a serious voice she said, it means docile child. I had looked up and when our eyes met we both broke into fits of laughter. The last thing Nao had ever been was docile, the farthest from that is how you'd define Nao. I would call her a wild child, always up to something, but that's why I loved her.
Hailey became restless again and I watched her as her face turned red. I could tell she wouldn't hold it in and soon a loud cry escaped her mouth. I tried to quiet her down but she kept on screaming her little lungs out. Her weeping face started to look painful, so I got up and walked out of the room.
She continued to cry as took her to the washroom. At that moment I had forgotten about Naoko or to say bye. Hailey needed me and I would try to help her. First I tried to give her a bottle that was in the diaper bag. She kept crying, even when I pressed the rubber against her lips. I pressed my nose against her diaper and took a whiff. I recoiled as I finally knew the reason why she had been crying and irritated.
She needed me to change her diaper. Standing there I didn't know what to do. So far I've only ever just watched, only once did I attempt to change her diaper…
It's not that hard Sam, just lay her down and open the diaper, said Naoko that day when she tried to get me to change it.
I can't, Nao. You know how clumsy I am, I said with genuine just laughed as her hand guided mine. She showed me the proper way to remove the diaper so that there wouldn't be a big mess.
Now wipe her down with a baby wipe.
I pulled a wipe out of the container and did what she told me to. I felt like a giant holding such a tiny person in my hand.
All you have to do is hold her legs like this, she said as she demonstrated holding both of Hailey's legs in one hand, and place a new opened diaper underneath her, then spread the legs so that the front of the diaper can cover the front. Yeah just like that. She smiled at me as I followed her instructions. Now just strap the sides and you're done.
When I finished I looked down at our daughter and then smiled up at Nao. I actually did it, I said in disbelief.
Of course you did, you had an amazing teacher, right Hailey? said Nao as she cooed at Hailey who just stared up at the both of us…
I looked down at Hailey, her voice echoing in the small confines of the men's washroom. I pulled out a small blanket from the diaper bag and placed it on the counter, since there were no changing tables in the men's washroom.
"Sorry Hailey, this is as good as it's going to get. Now let's see if I can do this." Her crying slowed and then stopped as she watched me with a concentrated look on her face. I recalled Nao's directions and attempted to do it with some grace. I opened the diaper and tried to wipe it down like Nao did but made a slight mess of things. Quickly I cleaned up the mess on my hands and finished putting the diaper on. I picked up Hailey and saw that the diaper was falling down.
I placed her back on the blanket and opened the diaper. I readjusted the sides, tightening it. I buttoned the one piece back into place and pulled her black skirt back into place. Her big blues eyes stared up at me, unblinking.
"Come on sweetheart, let's go say bye to your mommy," I said as I held Hailey close to my shoulder. My heart ached as I thought about never being with Nao again, but the warmth of Hailey brought me some comfort.
As I walked back into the main room, everyone was standing. My eyes focused on the front of the room and saw that the dark mahogany casket was no longer there. Panic started to overwhelm me as I looked around the room. I couldn't see it anywhere. The door to the crematorium was open and a crowd of men were all standing around. Their shoulders were hunched and shaking.
My vision lost focus as I stared blankly into the room. Nao was gone, I didn't even get to say bye. My knees felt weak as I stood there. I could feel my body giving in on me, but before I could fall a pair of hands steadied me. I looked up and Kai's face came into focus.
"Kai… she's gone. They didn't even let me say bye…" I heard the hitch in my voice.
He didn't respond. Then I heard the quiet sniffles. I don't know if it was Kai crying or someone else, but the melancholy feeling within the room overwhelmed me. I needed to get out of there; I needed to get as far away as possible.
Hailey was still snug against my shoulder but she started to cry again. Maybe she was letting out the tears that just didn't fall from my own eyes. Ignoring everyone's condolences I left the room and went outside. The crisp spring air felt like it was biting into my skin.
The parking lot of the funeral home was full of cars. Hailey's cries continued filling the area with her voice. I saw a few men standing to my right smoking. If I wasn't so distraught I might have gone and punched them for being so disrespectful.
Instead I just walked past them and went to the car. Leaning against the car door, I stood silently as I listened to Hailey's cry.
I couldn't get myself to go into the bedroom. The week prior to the funeral I had spent my nights on the couch. Just the thought of spending the night in my…our bedroom without Nao was terrifying. I felt that if I went back into my room now I would be going back into the dark place that I have been in growing up with my father.
So instead I sat outside the bedroom door, trying not to think about Nao. It was hard, when every corner there were memories of her. Just to the right, where the stairs started, had been the place where we shared our first kiss once we moved into the house. Down the hallway was Hailey's room where I recorded Nao and Hailey when they both finally came back to the house from the hospital, just a little over a month ago.
The memories really hurt. No matter what I did to try and erase them they were so vivid in my mind. Heaving out a sigh I got up, sitting there wouldn't help anyone. I wandered down the hallway to check up on Hailey. She would be sound asleep, since it was two in the morning. I watched her, her breathing was steady and her little body rose and fell as she slept, oblivious to the world. I tucked the blanket around her. I turned on the baby monitor and went downstairs.
Sitting beside the couch that I slept on for the past two weeks was the baby monitor. I turned it on and could hear the quiet breathing from Hailey. Turning off the light I pulled the blanket over me, listening to the breathing as it lulled me to sleep.
A sharp cry echoed loudly around my head. Groaning I reached for Nao, so that she could go see what Hailey needed. My hand came into contact with something hard, and when I opened my eyes I remembered that Nao was no longer there. Just like every night for the last two weeks. The crying continued as I sat there, tears finally formed in my eyes. At times like this Nao always got up and went to check. They spilled over as I sat there helpless. Everything became overwhelming and I just wanted Nao to be there, to hold and tell me that everything would be ok.
Hailey persisted. I wiped away the tears, they wouldn't bring Nao back. Getting up off the couch I wandered up the stairs towards Hailey. She was laying on her back her hands pumping into the air as she continued to cry.
"I'm here now baby, what's wrong?" I asked her as I picked up her trembling body.
I checked her like how I always did for the past two weeks. First the diaper and then if she was hungry. And like every night she wanted both. So I took her to the changing table and changed her diaper. My fingers had become used to the ministrations and I was able to change the diapers skilfully. Once the diaper was changed her cries became quiet sniffles.
"Are you hungry too?"
The two of us wandered downstairs, my arms holding her on my shoulders as I rocked her. The motion had become innate, with all the practice I was getting. By the time we got to the kitchen she had already fallen back to sleep. Her face a dark pink from all the crying, was calm, her mouth puckered in a cute frown moved as if she was drinking a bottle. So I made a small bottle of formula for her. Once it was warm I took her to the couch and sat down cradling her in my lap. I placed the bottle against her lips and she took it into her mouth. As if on autopilot she began drinking. Her eyes fluttered open and stared up at me in a sleepy haze.
A smile etched onto my face as I watched her drink. Her arms kept moving back and forth and she kept opening and closing her hands. Her little fingers reached over and held onto my ring finger. She was holding it so tightly that my wedding band dug into my skin. Her face was concentrating on drinking the milk but she never once loosened her hold.
I knew at that moment that if nothing else, being there for Hailey was worth keeping strong. That little hand was my lifeline in this world without Nao. I would give everything I had to raising Hailey right, just like how Nao would have wanted her to be raised.
My vision blurred as tears formed. I was still smiling but the tears continued to fall as I watched over my daughter. It's moments like these that I wanted to look over and tell Nao, look, I can do this or can you believe I'm feeding her. But she wasn't there. I would just have to marvel by myself and hope that Nao was looking over us.
Once Hailey finished the bottle I placed the blanket that was on the couch and draped it over my shoulder. Then I put her against my shoulder and rubbed her back waiting for her to burp. Once she did I could feel her body get heavy. Her breathing became steady and I knew that she would sleep through till morning. I took her back upstairs and placed her in the crib. I kissed her on her forehead before going back to sleep. Another night alone with my thoughts of what it should have been like.
Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and soon a whole year passed by. I had managed as best I could. Hailey grew up showing so many different sides to her, most of which she had to have inherited from Nao.
It was the day of Nao's death and the family were all coming over to spend it with Hailey and me. I had dressed Hailey in a blue dress, and matching socks. Her hair had lightened a bit throughout the year, the black hair was now a chestnut brown, similar to my own. She smiled a lot, just like her mother.
Hailey had been practicing her walk. She picked up everything a baby would, fairly quickly. She said her first words two months ago. She was already crawling when other babies were still figuring out how to sit. Now at the age of one she could already walk, albeit a little wobbly.
"Come on, Hailey, come to Papa." She was just a few feet in front of me, standing on her plump legs. I had pushed all the furniture against the wall so that the living room was safe.
She smiled at me as her little mouth opened. "Pa..pa," she laughed as she took a testing step.
"That's right come to Papa," I said with enthusiasm. It still shook me when she called me Papa. I never knew the feeling of such joy, since Nao.
"Papa… come," said Hailey as she took three quick steps her arms reaching out to me.
"That's it sweetheart, almost there."
She sounded like a parrot. I laughed as she took the last few steps and tumbled into my arms. I held her close and she tried to wrap her plump little arms around me. "Good job honey."
"Good… Papa," she said her smile a mirror image of Nao's.
"Yes, good." I kissed her on the cheek. She wriggled and laughed as my beard pricked her on the cheek.
As I was sitting there I heard the door bell ring. "Gramma," said Hailey in a loud voice.
"Yes, that would be grandma," I said as I got up, still holding Hailey in my arm. "Let's go say hi."
"Say hi," she mimicked. We walked down the hallway towards the front entrance. Hailey let out a gasp as we walked past a few pictures. "Mama…say hi."
I turned and saw the picture of Nao. Every time Hailey saw it she would say hi. I made sure she remembered her mother; I didn't want her to go without like I did. "Right let's say hi to Mama first." While still in my arms Hailey reached over and touched her lips to the picture and then waved cutely. I smiled. Nao would have loved that.
"Now let's go say hi to Grandma."
She clapped her hands enthusiastically and we made our way to the door. When I opened the door a large group of people came inside. Hailey showed them the new words she learned and then walked for them. The house was filled with laughter again, as if Nao never left. But not a day goes by that I don't remember her or wish she was there with us to watch our daughter grow up.