The funeral took place the next day, and Jeremy's children were surprised when their father was interred beside Brianna in the quiet little cemetery. It was the first time that the children had visited the site since that sad ceremony over twenty years ago. Kirsten explained that, when the time came, she would be joining her husband on his other side. A cherished husband would be forever bookended by the two women that he had loved, and who had loved him during their lifetimes.
"Did you ever give any thought to how you want to handle your passing when the time comes?" Lisa asked curiously of her brother and sister as they sat in the limousine following the lead one with Kirsten and her extended family.
"Not really," Amy admitted, "although I am designated as an organ donor on my driver's license. I suppose that I never considered what would happen to the rest of me after they harvested what they needed."
"I guess I'll just let Charlotte decide," Dan finally answered after stewing over the question for a bit.
"Well, that's one hell of a burden to place on somebody's shoulders, Bro," Lisa said softly. "Believe me, I'm not criticizing you because I haven't made any plans either. But, something like this—you know, happening so suddenly—makes you stop and think about unpleasant things that you don't want to face. To be honest, I now think that not talking about it with someone is being irresponsible because we're just assuming that somebody else will pick up the slack. Maybe we all need to grow up and be adults."
Later that night after the last visiting mourners had straggled out the door, the sisters and their brother were again seated around the kitchen table. Kirsten was exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and had retired to her bedroom, and Anya was also tucked in for the night. In the morning, three siblings would all be catching different flights at the airport for their individual routes back home across the United States. Of course, it fell to Amy to broker some sort of peace between the fragmented pieces of her family before they escaped.
"I've thought about our situation a lot over the years," she began slowly, "and I think that what's essentially at the heart of this ongoing disconnect is your anger at our mother."
Lisa rolled her eyes and retorted irritably.
"Amy, don't try trotting out all that child psychology rhetoric that you learned to use on your patients. We're well past that now!"
"Are you really past it—the anger, I mean?" Amy asked softly. "Maybe my child psychology 'rhetoric' may not be that far off the mark, because this anger, or we can call it resentful hurting, if you prefer, is something that stems from what happened to us when we were children, and it has never really gone away. It has been that heavy weight on our shoulders that has haunted us through the ensuing years and far beyond. It has molded and defined the adults that we have become."
Dan remained quiet during the exchange, lost in the reverie of his past, but Lisa was not about to be chastised or categorized or whatever the hell Amy was trying to do.
"We had every right to be angry at our mother. She made a unilateral decision that cut our legs right out from under us! You were too little to understand at the time, and that's one thing that you should be thankful for, little sister. But, Dan and I lived the horror over and over, day in and day out, and so did Dad."
"What would it take to grant Mom absolution and to forgive her?" Amy quietly asked.
"What's the point of that now?" Lisa snarled.
Finally, Dan spoke up.
"If there's one thing that I learned in rehab, it's not to use excuses for our behavior. We make the choices that we do, and we need to own that responsibility and not blame it on someone or something else. I'm not trying to dump on you, Lisa. Looking back, I think that I should have handled my anger differently. I should have worked through it right here and given you and Dad some support instead of running away. The Marines were my escape hatch. I don't regret doing my tours, but maybe you and Dad and Amy needed me more. I'm sorry, Sis, I truly am, for bailing on you. Maybe I couldn't fathom Mom's reasons at the time, but I can't keep using my confusion and hurt as excuses for screwing up. Like you said in the limo today, maybe it's time for us all to grow up and be adults."
Lisa considered her brother's words before commenting.
"Okay, let's talk about bailing because that's really at the heart of my problem. Don't you understand that Mom's decision to leave us felt like abandonment? Then, before I could get my head around that issue, you abandoned me, too, Dan. I felt as if I wasn't worthy of anybody's love."
"I loved you then," Amy whispered gently, "and I still do and always will. I would never abandon you if you needed me. Surely you must know that."
Suddenly, Lisa started to weep. In her mind's eye, she was seeing herself as a lost child valiantly trying her very best to take care of another little motherless and lost child. Maybe that responsibility was the only thing that had sustained her through her grief, but the one person that mattered was never aware of her sacrifice or her success.
"I tried so hard, but Mom never got to see. She never knew how it all turned out," she whispered forlornly.
"And I know that hurts," Amy responded. "But maybe our mother already knew because she had faith in each of us to be strong enough to go on without her. Maybe in her heart, she believed in us more than we believed in ourselves.
I realize that deciding to leave this world intentionally seems like a very cold and drastic choice. But, Lisa, you're a parent now—and so are you, Dan. Wouldn't each of you take any action that you thought was necessary to spare your children more pain? Mom had instilled her love into each of us. She wanted us to remember that love that she shared in so many ways, and I believe that she wanted us to cherish those wonderful memories. She didn't want our lasting image of her to be a grotesquely tormented portrait of suffering. I'll never accept that she had her own best interests at heart when she left us. I think her last thoughts were of what was best for us."
After Amy finished, there was a poignant silence. Finally, the youngest member of this traumatized little group pulled a large manila envelope out of her satchel on the floor.
"Kirsten gave me this yesterday. She was going through some things in that old blanket chest and found it tucked away. It had my name on it, and it was from Mom. I guess over the years Dad had forgotten all about it."
Amy then extracted a thick, oversized piece of cardstock. The entire background had been airbrushed a pale blue. In the center, someone had painted a large red heart that took up almost all of the surface area. Layered upon that heart was an adult's handprint in vibrant gold with a child's smaller handprint atop it in rosy pink.
"I only have a very hazy recollection of creating this with Mom. I think we may have done it together on the last day of her life. You see, that's the problem. I was so young I only have vague impressions of her, and I've always wanted to have those gaps filled in but was afraid to ask. It seemed to me that no one ever wanted to talk about this woman that I was a part of and who had given me life," Amy whispered as she reverently placed her hand atop the ones memorialized in paint.
"Please tell me about her," she begged the gatekeepers of the past. "Make the woman in those old photographs real for me. Don't let a handprint on a piece of paper be my only legacy."
Slowly, Lisa's own hand finally edged across the tabletop and came to rest atop her sister's. Then Dan added the warmth and comforting strength of his larger one. It was symbolic of a circuit again being completed. Hesitantly, in starts and stops, the once reticent caretakers of the memories began to open their own hearts and relate their poignant stories. The recollections and anecdotes lasted long into the night. There was laughter and there were nostalgic sighs and even tears. But it was good because, after two long decades, the forgiveness and the cathartic healing had finally begun, and three people ultimately found peace.