"Promise us you won't be a stranger okay? Either of you. You're welcome any time."
"Even me, huh?"
Addy pulled Joe to her and gave him a tight hug. "Especially you."
I was waiting for the trademark scowl, or a wince at the feel of a hug. Instead, with a little embarassment, I saw him squeeze back, albeit slightly.
"Sorry it didn't work out as planned, Al," Shelby said. She looped her arm playfully around my neck. I leaned back into her.
"It didn't," I admitted. I glanced around. Mom and dad were holding hands, their foreheads pressed against each other's as they talked quietly. Joe had moved on to shaking Kevin's hand. I smiled. "But I kinda like where it's all going."
Each goodbye was bittersweet, as goodbyes can always be. The atmosphere at the airport would have been considerably gloomier had it not been for Brenna announcing that she was going to pack herself in her 'papa's' suitcase if we didn't let her go to Fwo-wida. In her attempts to squeeze her big Pooh bear butt in dad's already cramped suitcase, she had everyone cracking up. Her face turned red in childhood indignation which prompted her crying into Mason's shoulder for the last fifteen minutes.
"I promise you can come soon," dad said softly to his crying granddaughter. He pressed his lips into the small sliver of cheek she was still showing. "And when you do, I promise to stock up on chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream."
That did it. Even as our boarding call rang overhead, Bren swiveled her head and sniffled. "I like that kind," she said in what I thought of as her 'teeny' voice. Dad smiled. He glanced over at Shel and I saw a glimmer that could only signify the blurring of memories. "I know you do."
As the second boarding announcement came overhead, we were still making hurried, shouted promises. Kevin and Addy had to visit after the baby was born, dad had to bring us back during Christmas for a sleigh ride, and Brenna insisted we had to come back tomorrow for lemonade.
With all of the commotion, I almost forgot to ask Shelby for the favor that had been ruminating in my head the last couple days. I zipped open my carry-on and rushed over to her. I pulled out a plain white square package and handed it to her.
"I need you to send this to Cole at the home," I said quietly. Shelby looked surprised as she took it from me.
"It's lumpy," she said.
"It's the bubble wrap. It's a CD."
I nodded. I had contemplated writing a letter, but then I took into consideration the fact he would have to find someone to read the letter to him. A CD was more private for what I needed to say.
"Yeah. I know it wouldn't get to him if they saw my name, so if you can--"
Shel grinned. "Fake a name?"
I shook my head. "Not quite. Put 'Willow' on the front. I have a feeling he'll know what it means."
Shel looked surprised and I think a little disappointed that she didn't get to be so stealthy. I had already planned a head. She tapped the package lightly in her palm. "Will do."
I turned. Mom was waving frantically at me. I zipped up my duffel and began a backwards run.
"THANK YOU!" I called back. Shel laughed.
"Love you! Turn around before you bump into something!"
I broke into a full on grin as I swung around and caught up with mom. She wrapped her arm around me.
"Ready to go home?"
I felt a delicious warm feeling pool in my stomach. It felt almost like the warm caramel when first poured over an apple. I was excited and anxious to know what dad had to share with Joe and I. I wanted to see Stefie again in person. I nodded.
Much later that night, after the Chinese food was devoured, the paper plates discarded, and the fortunes read, dad cleared his throat and leaned forward across the little coffee table we had gathered around to eat.
"If you two aren't too tired, I'd like to share some things with you," he said quietly. Mom rubbed his forearm and stood up. My eyes honed in on her like a hawk.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"To unpack," she explained.
"Why aren't you staying?" Joe asked.
Mom smiled. She shared a look with dad that I didn't understand before she looked back at the two of us. "I think this needs to be done with just the three of you," she said.
I didn't know how to argue that one. As it turns out, neither did Joe. Since we didn't know what was coming, we didn't know if she was right or not. Mom leaned down, met dad's waiting lips, and disappeared up the stairs. Dad watched her go. He played with the hem of his shirt. He looked at Joe. He looked at me.
He looked sad.
"I know it hasn't been easy for the two of you," dad started off slowly. "Life hasn't been fair."
"That's not true," I said quickly. Medicine be damned, I still needed to gloss some things over. I needed to erase the sad look on dad's face. It didn't work. He shook his head and continued.
"Honey, in a perfect world you wouldn't have lost your mother before you even had a chance to get to know her."
The words hung heavy in the air. It was something that I thought about often, but tried not to dwell on. I thought about how lucky we were to have mom in our life. Without mom there wouldn't be Shelby. Or the twins. Or--
"Unless you've found a way to bring her back, I don't want to talk about this," Joe said stubbornly, the edge creeping right back into his voice. Twelve hours of niceness seemed to have been the record.
"Nothing will ever bring her back completely," dad said. "And we need to talk. Finally. All I've told you over the years was the essential about what happened to your mom. You need to know who she was and not just the facts. She wouldn't want to be just a crash victim in your eyes." He sounded wistful. Melancholy. He turned around and for a second I thought he was doing it so he could cry alone. Instead, he spread himself out and pulled a small wooden chest from behind the couch. It was covered with dust and even from my distance, I could tell from the smell that it had been sitting in the attic for a long time.
"After your mother died, it took me a long time to confront her things. I kept her memory locked up in the room she had tried to recuperate in. I didn't even unpack her suitcase until after you said your first word." He directed that piece of information at me as he opened the box. He pulled out a yellowed piece of paper. Even though it was faded, I could see dad's name on it.
"She wrote me this letter," he said, his voice shaking slightly. He held it out to Joe. "I'd like you two to read it."
Joe stared at it and I was surprised to see that he actually looked scared. He looked over at me. I nodded, my heart pounding. He took it between his forefinger and thumb and just let it dangle there for a second as if judging whether or not it was real. Slowly, he unfolded it. The writing inside was just as faded as dad's name on the outside. I pressed in close to Joe so we could read it together.
I only made it to beautiful babies before I started to bawl.