I lay the flowers down on her grave, and thanked her once more.
“Oh, and if you see my mother, can you tell her I love her?” I asked. “And no matter what, I’m still here for her always.”
As I spoke to one angel about another, a dragonfly danced right past me, and I swore the broken pieces of my soul slowly began to heal.
After I landed in Florida, I felt a giant knot form in my stomach as I picked up my rental car. It had been over a year since I’d seen my father, and I wasn’t certain what to expect. Yet when I pulled up to the house and walked up the front porch, my heart instantly broke.
“Eleanor,” Dad muttered, stunned to see me standing there. He looked wrecked, as if he hadn’t showered in days. His hair was wild, his beard not trimmed, and he’d put on a bit of weight since the last time. “Hey. What are you doing here? Are you okay?”
I glanced past him and saw his house was trashed. Junk food wrappers covered the coffee table, and there were clothes tossed all over.
I raised an eyebrow. “Are you okay?”
He shifted over a bit, trying to block my view, but I already saw everything I needed. He began coughing into the palm of his hand, and I swore it sounded like he was going to lose a lung any second now.
“I’m good, I’m good. Just getting along day by day,” he said, scratching the back of his neck.
His eyes looked hollow. He looked a bit pale. And sad.
He looked so sad.
But that was nothing new. My father had been sad for the past sixteen years. It was his new normal.
“Can I come in?” I asked, stepping forward.
He grimaced and blocked my entrance. “It’s a mess in here, Eleanor. Maybe we can go out and grab a bite to eat.” He was embarrassed by himself, but I didn’t care. I was his daughter, and I loved him.
Whatever he was going through, I could help.
“Let me in, Dad. I’ll help you straighten up the place. Plus, I was hoping to stay here a few days before heading back home. Just so we can catch up.”
“Oh? Well, I don’t know. I just wish you would’ve told me, Eleanor.”
“Dad. Let me in.”
He shook his head. “It’s bad…”
“Dad,” I argued. “Let me in.” I pushed my way past him, and walked into the house to see that it was a million times worse than when I simply peeked inside.
There was trash everywhere. Crumbs of food through the carpet. Empty soda cans, bottles of liquor, cookie containers. Wrappers of all sorts. His clothes were tossed into a junk pile in the corner of the living room, and the kitchen sink was stacked high with dishes.
I’d seen my father during some of the lowest points of his life but never like this. He was living in filth, and it was almost as if he didn’t care.
He started scrambling around, picking things up, obviously completely thrown off by my arrival. “It’s not always like this,” he lied. “Things have just been a bit crazy lately,” he muttered.
“You can’t live like this, Dad,” I said, stunned. “You deserve more than this.”
He cringed. “Don’t start on me, Eleanor. You showed up with no warning. I didn’t have a chance to straighten up.”
“It should’ve never been this bad! And look at you…Dad…have you been taking your medicine?”
He grimaced. “I’m fine, Eleanor. I don’t need you coming down here and belittling me because of my choices.”
“I’m not trying to belittle you, Dad. I’m honestly just worried. This isn’t healthy, and you look weaker than the last time I saw you. I just want to help you.”
Now his embarrassment was shifting to anger. “I didn’t ask for your help! I don’t need your help. I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not. You’re broken, and you have been for years now.”
“See? This is why I don’t like to visit. This is why us living together didn’t work out. You always end up pointing out my flaws.”
“Dad, that’s not what I’m doing! I’m just saying, I’m worried.”
“Yeah well, stop worrying. I don’t need your pity.”
“It’s not pity; it’s love. I love you, Dad, and I want you to be the best you can be.”
He didn’t say I love you, too.
That always stung.
He lowered his head and scratched the back of his neck. He didn’t look at me very often, and I was almost certain it was because I looked like Mom. Maybe it was too hard for him to face me. Maybe it made his hurts hurt a little too deeply.
“Maybe it’s best that you don’t stay here. I’m not in a good place right now, and I just don’t want you to have to feel bad for who I am, alright? Maybe it’s best if you head out, Eleanor.”
He dismissed me.
Without even looking my way.
He pushed me away and told me to go, and that was all there was to it.
The whole flight back to Illinois, I cried. I sobbed for him out of fear. Out of worry. Out of heartbreak. And then I prayed to Mom to look over him, because I was certain there was nothing I could do to make him come back to me.
When I returned to Illinois, I began my search for a new job. I was picking up the pieces of my broken heart, and learning to teach them to beat on their own again.
Every now and then I thought of both my father and Greyson. I thought about their hearts, and I hoped they were still beating on their own, too. I did the only thing I could truly do for the both of them due to the muddy waters we were all floating through: I loved them from a distance.
I missed her.
I missed Eleanor every single day since she’d left, but I did my best to keep moving along for my girls. They were my main focus, and until everything was right with them, I couldn’t think of anything or anyone else. Eleanor often raced freely through my mind, and I allowed it to happen. Truthfully, thinking about her made some days easier.
When December came around, it was our second Christmas without Nicole. Holidays were still so hard for us all to face, but the girls and I were facing it together. That Christmas morning, the grass was frosted, and the temperature was beyond chilled. I tossed on my winter jacket and gathered some blankets from the back closet, and headed to the living room where Lorelai and Karla both were sitting.
They both looked up at me with confusion in their stares.
“Where are you going?” Karla asked.
“I thought we could go visit your mom to wish her a Merry Christmas,” I told them. “Want to go grab your coats?”
They went off to do as I said, and we drove in silence to the cemetery. As we pulled in, I noticed others visiting their loved ones on the special day, sharing stories and memories.
The girls and I walked to their mother’s gravestone, and we lay the blankets down on the ground before sitting next to one another and squeezing close to keep warm.
We were quiet at first, just staring and reflecting.
“This is where I came,” Karla whispered, staring at the tombstone. “When I was skipping school, I’d come here to be with her,” she finally confessed. “It’s where I felt the most okay—when I was around Mom. It felt like she always had something to tell me, but I couldn’t hear her. I couldn’t figure it out.”
I looked at my daughter and gave her a smile. “I used to do the same after she passed. And I felt the same way. Like there was something she was trying to say to us, but I couldn’t even figure it out.”
“Why didn’t you guys just ask her?” Lorelai questioned, confused. “I ask Mommy stuff all the time, and she answers.”
I smiled at Lorelai, and I truly hoped that gift she had to hold on to her mother would never disappear. I pulled her closer to my side. “For some people it’s easier, I guess, Lorelai. Some people are able to hold a very tight relationship with their loved ones after they passed away.”
“Yeah, Mom and I are best friends,” she frankly stated. “You should try just talking to her.”
“How do you do it, Lorelai?” Karla asked. “How do you talk to her and know that she hears you?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “You just gotta believe.”
Karla took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Hey, Mom, it’s me, Karla. I just wanted to say that I miss you a lot. Every day, and it never really gets easier. I miss your bad jokes, and your laughter, and your terrible taste in music. I miss how you could make my bad days better. And how you could stop me from hurting whenever someone was mean to me.” Tears started rolling down her cheeks, and I wiped them away as she kept talking. “And I miss hugging you. I miss hugging you so much, but Dad’s been doing a pretty good job of being there lately for the hugs. So, yeah. We’re not okay with you gone, but we’re okay. We’re looking out for each other, and I just wanted you to know that. We’re okay, and I love you.”
She opened her eyes and wiped the tears away.
“See, Karla?” Lorelai whispered. “Did you hear it?”
“Mommy said she loves you, too.”
And for the first time in over a year, I think Karla finally felt her mother’s words.
“You knew her before?” Karla asked as she walked into my office the evening after Christmas. She held an envelope in her hands and fidgeted with her fingers. Nicole always said Karla got that nervous habit from me.
“Eleanor. You knew her before she was the nanny?”
Just hearing her name made my chest tighten a bit. “Yeah, when we were in high school.”
“She was your girlfriend?”
“Well, no, not exactly.”
“So she was just a friend?”
I brushed my hand against the back of my neck. “No. Not exactly.”
“You’re confusing me,” she said, arching her eyebrow.
“I know. It’s just hard to explain what exactly we were. She was her, I was me, and we were us. There was no label for it. We were just two people helping each other breathe.”