Chapter 1

I don't know what to write or how to start but I have to do something. I've had the last anxiety attack that I ever want to have. I will not turn into my mother. I love her but doing things her way is impossible. I won't. I can't. I've got to bleed off these feelings or at least beat them into some kind of manageable form. I can't be like some of the patients that used to come to the clinic. I don't have the luxury of exploding or falling apart and then sitting around while other people pick up the pieces and put things to right. There isn't anyone else.

He just left me … us I mean. He just had to know about his family, it was eating him alive he said. He had a responsibility as the oldest he said. Fine. I get that. I do. Really. At least academically. But didn't he have a higher responsibility to his wife and baby daughter?

It's been a month. God has it been a month. I hope to never live through another month like this one the remainder of my life. If I had as much energy as I have inclination I would sit down and ball my head off. But I can't. Besides I'd only set the baby off and I have to be strong if for no other reason than she needs me to be.

I got the last of the summer garden in by myself. Mom just wasn't capable … or should I say able … in body, spirit, or mind at that point. I got everything we didn't eat fresh preserved and didn't need a freezer to do it thank you very much. I'm proud of that. It was my first truly independent act that was totally self-directed. Lord knows there wasn't anyone to give me any direction by then. And a good thing I was able to accomplish it as the last of the power outages came … and never ended … that same week. And I buried Daddy myself. And now I've buried Momma myself, who in the end was a woman more broken than when she first had to start taking her meds when I was in middle school and Travis got killed by riding in a car driven by one of his frat brothers that had been only slightly less drunk than he was.

I'm trying to believe Robert wouldn't have left us if he'd had an inkling of the condition my parents were in and what I'd soon be facing but I'm not sure I can say it and believe it. Maybe after he comes back, but not right now; right now I'm just angry at having to do all of this alone even though I really do understand the position he was in. He's really close to his family, as close as I am (was) to mine. And his relationship with my parents became so strained after we had to move in with them.

The dynamics of my family is so different from how he grew up. My parents close but culturally different from his and touched by tragedy making them more somber. They rarely laughed with abandon, but weren't stingy with their smiles. Work took precedent over everything but church, and sometimes church was the work of the day. Daddy's grandfather a cast off Mennonite turned Southern Baptist that didn't have a whole lot of flexibility about some things. Daddy's father an alcoholic who got bit by the bottle early in life and struggled until his own untimely death in a car crash eerily similar to the one that took my brother. Daddy caught in the middle trying to be neither man but his own, and not always realizing how much of each of them he dragged around as baggage. My mother a woman partially broken by the loss of her oldest child who as a result tended to hold onto things rather than people. It took me weeks to dig out of the rat's warren my mother had turned most of the house into after I married and moved out. Daddy enabling her because he just wanted them to be at peace as they got older and unwilling to see just how much Momma had deteriorated.

Most of Robert's clan were loud, boisterous, and only worked so they could have time and resources to play … at least his siblings are like that, and the relatives on his mother's side; his father is different. Robert's father is a nice man, a good man, but extremely passive. He works a job cleaning up around the Parkway and then he works in his shop piddling but never quite finishing a project. Those are about the only two places that you will find him if he isn't in church or sleeping. And that's about all there is to him. He is more shadow than substance. Robert's mother treats him almost like another son rather than her husband, or so it seems from my perspective. Mrs. Belmont is … well she is definitely … oh Good Lord, just say it Ettie, your mother in law is a force to be reckoned with and that you never know whether she is going to try to rule your world or advice you to death about it.

Don't get me wrong, 99.9% of the time Mrs. Belmont means well and is as good as you can ask for when it comes to getting support, but if you aren't careful she can be controlling … and manipulative … all with the best of intentions, but still. That took quite a bit of effort to learn on my part (with a little friendly advice from a sister in law) so I could avoid the pitfalls. I'd probably still be walking through a mine field of advice if we hadn't gotten caught on this side of the evacuation and had little to no choice but to head to my parents' place. And boy did Mrs. Belmont pitch a fit about it until Daddy took over the conversation and smoothed the road. Daddy understood about in-laws as his own had been a trifle difficult to deal with in the early years and I'll miss having him to talk to and getting his advice on how to handle things when my last nerve gets to twanging. I wish Daddy had had as much understanding of Robert.

Had Robert had his space, if there'd been space for us to carve out for our own, Robert and Daddy would have been good friends. They were friends of a sort before, enjoying going fishing and stuff together that Robert could never get his own father to do. But living under the same roof just didn't work no matter how they tried. Robert had never had his father check his ego, question him; Daddy hadn't exactly been easy on Robert. He wanted him … expected him … to be what he remembered of Travis except that Robert wasn't Travis and that shoe never would have fit. It was all a bunch of complicated psychobabble I just can't handle rehashing in my mind yet again, both of them being partially responsible for how things progressed. There were never outright hostilities – both man respecting the other too much for that – but the strain began to tell nevertheless.

All of it made worse by my parents hiding how bad things were on their end and resenting a bit feeling the need to hide it. Not financially because we were all in that bucket. The whole country was and is; I don't even think a Rockefeller could escape what is going on. It was the personal stuff that perhaps I should have been more aware of except that I wasn't and that was by design if I understand what Momma tried to explain after it was too late to do anything about it. It is frustrating trying to take my portion of the responsibility for how things played out while accepting that my parents intentionally put me – at least partially – in the position of not having enough information to work with. I didn't know they were running out of Mom's medications. They said, and I had no reason not to believe them, that they'd gotten their doctor to give them double scripts and that he'd given them all sorts of free samples before he'd been forced to close his office. I didn't know Dad was on anything except a cholesterol pill. What a fool I was. A blind fool. Looking back all of the signs were there for both of them. I just didn't want to see their weaknesses, was afraid to, and was wound up in my own fear of what was playing out in the news every day. Then having Robert get the need and drive to go check on his parents and siblings. It was all just a nightmare occasionally interspersed with terror, like when Evie spiked a temp of almost 104 degrees and there was no phone, electric, or doctor to call even if there had the phones actually worked.

Blood pressure. Daddy hadn't been feeling well but put it down to the cabbage we served for two meals running to get rid of the leftovers since there wasn't any refrigeration. We'd left him to spend some time in the barn so that the inevitable consequences could work their way through his system. But when he didn't come in for lunch Mom went out to get him. When she didn't come in I went out to find her sitting in the oily dirt, holding him – his body – and rocking as tears fell from her unseeing gaze. Even I, with my limited training and experience, could tell any attempt at resuscitating him was useless, that he'd been gone long enough for it to start to show, probably almost as soon as he'd gone out right after breakfast.

Mom's tears were silent for a long time and I couldn't get her to respond to me at all. I ran to the neighbor's and she came over to help with Mom. It was Mrs. Carmichael – stoic and unusually practical for her – that explained that we'd have to take care of Daddy ourselves, that with no phones or emergency services and no men close by to help …

Mrs. Carmichael stayed two nights and I will be forever grateful to her because when Momma started to let loose it took both of us to deal with her. That's when I started coming out of my shock and having my first suspicions that not everything was how my parents had been portraying it. It took a week for me to be able to leave Mom's side for more than the time it took me to run to the bathroom or take care of Evie. Mom finally came around enough that she asked me to check on Mrs. Carmichael and the woman was grateful and relieved. I asked her to come stay with us but she said she had to stay because her kids were due to show up at any time.

Over the next few days Mom did her best to explain how things had really stood with both of us going over all the important papers and making sure all was in order. I was a bit shocked to find out that Daddy had added a handwritten codicil to his will after Robert left to check on his family. The contents of the will was even more harsh than I expected, harsh enough to hurt me though Momma said that hadn't been the purpose of it but to protect me and Evie since Robert seemed to be siding with his biological family over us.

I'm still certain that isn't what has happened. They're his parents and siblings. He's the oldest son. I try to imagine how Travis would have acted in a similar situation but I can only guess. Any given day might find my answer different from what it was the day before. I've given up trying to analyze the why's and simply live with the what are's. There's so many things I'm still coming to grips with. It feels like I'm on a stomach churning ferris wheel and no one wants to let me off. Up and down and round and round, too fast to do much more than catch a glimpse of the ground rushing up, fearing the worst, and then finding me leaving my stomach contents behind as I rush back up; the centrifugal force slowly building more and more cruelly.

I thought Momma was … well, coming to terms with things is one way of putting it but it sounds almost cruel to say it that way. I just mean she seemed … better, and that she was at least trying to cope with reality, like she was surviving the transition from medicated coping skills to behavioral coping skills even if it wasn't a completely smooth transition. She wasn't great but she seemed better. We'd both start crying and in the beginning it was me comforting Momma. But those last couple of days, when stuff was getting so hard to do … dealing with the garden, canning and drying stuff, culling the chickens, putting down a goat that had broken her back falling from some place she had no business being, the endless task of cutting and stacking wood to feed the stove because winter is coming … it was Momma that comforted me, and Evie too who only understood yet another man was missing from her life and that I didn't have the energy or strength for piggy back rides or much of anything else.

I'm pretty sure that Momma had another breakdown. I'm going to put it all in that column of the ledger. That she wasn't completely responsible and that I'd missed signals I shouldn't have. My fault. The thing is I still don't know if she took Dad's meds on purpose or if she'd just mistaken his pill caddy for hers. He'd been piecing his out to make them last but she managed to take just enough of them. My fault. I should have gotten rid of them. Or at least put them away. My fault. Should have watched her closer. Not believed she was getting better just because I wanted to believe it. My fault.

Now they're both gone. Buried side by side in the old family cemetery in a rocky patch of hillside ground that had never been fit to grow anything but rocks. I'm alone, or the next best thing to it. Evie is barely a year old. Robert had promised to be back for her birthday but he isn't. One week he said, two at the most. It's been a month! Damn you anyway Robert Belmont.

Oh God, please forgive me. I didn't mean it. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. Please God don't hold that against me. Let Robert come back. He has to.