And on those adventures... God. It was a miracle we hadn’t ended up in the hospital or dead.
I remembered the time when we swam out to a little island about half a mile away from Scupper, so small it was just a pile of rocks and a pine tree. I was so tired and cold, my limbs stiff, my head sinking underwater, my little dog paddle not doing much to propel me forward. And there were Lily and Dad on the rocks, yelling at me, irritated that I wasn’t there already. My teeth chattered and my head ached, and suddenly, there was my mother in our little Boston whaler, the engine the best sound I’d ever heard. My father had yelled at her, saying I’d never learn if she kept coddling me, that his daughters were exceptional, that she would ruin us.
Except she hadn’t. She’d saved us.
She’d saved me.
“Lily has it, too, doesn’t she?” I asked. It wasn’t really a question.
My mother nodded, and her eyes filled with tears. Maybe if I’d seen my sister more than five times in the past fifteen years, I would have known sooner.
“So what happened to make him leave?” My voice was just a whisper now.
Mom tapped her fingernail against her cup, not looking at me. “I gave him an ultimatum. A doctor and medication or a divorce. That was the day he left.” She took a deep breath. “When a few weeks had passed, I tracked him down in Portsmouth. He’d been using our credit cards, taking out new ones, too, so Visa and I found him. I begged him not to do this to you girls, to call you, to get into treatment. But he wouldn’t. He was wound too tight. I couldn’t reach him. He hated me by then.”
A tear dropped on the table. My mother’s tear, something I’d never seen before. “Before you girls came into the world, it was different. We loved each other. But you both loved him so much, thought he was the whole world, and my opinion just didn’t matter anymore. It was always three against one.”
“Oh, Mom,” I whispered. I grabbed us each a napkin so we could wipe our eyes. “Why didn’t you ever tell us?”
She waved her hand. “Maybe I should have. I kept hoping he’d come home. After a year, I figured he wouldn’t, and by then, both you girls were hurtin’ so bad. You were so sad, and Lily was just furious. I was afraid to let you know your father was...mentally ill. I was afraid it’d crush you both. I thought it’d be better if you thought it was about him and me.”
“I didn’t think that. I mean, I did, but I knew if Dad wanted to see us, he would have.”
She nodded. “I admit, Nora, I was outta my league. I should’ve gotten you girls into counseling. I figured the more steady home life was, the better you’d be. You were doing so well in school, and Lily had her friends... I guess I wanted to think you were both all right.”
“I was. I am, Mom. I’m fine.”
“Yes. You are. Your sister, though...” Her voice broke off.
“You can only do what you can do, Mom.”
She nodded and blotted her eyes again.
I got up and refilled her coffee cup, set it down next to her. Boomer, whose sleep had been interrupted by all this human distress, came over and put his head in her lap, and she stroked his ears.
“Do you know if Dad’s still alive?” I asked.
She looked down.
I guess I had my answer. “Was it suicide?”
She shook her head. “Car crash during a hard rain down in Texas somewhere. Tractor trailer crossed over the line and hit him head-on. He was the only one in the car.”
Mr. Gillespie had found him, after all. A car accident in El Paso, Texas, seventeen years ago.
My dad. He was really gone, my daddy, and even though it had been so, so long since I’d seen him, the pain was like my heart had just been ripped from my chest.
My father, who had made life so special—and so dangerous—had died all alone.
I put my head on the table and sobbed.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you,” my mother whispered, stroking the back of my head. “I didn’t want to break your heart all over again.”
Her hand kept petting my head, and Boomer wormed his snout under my arms, unwilling to have his beloved in such distress, and I sputtered with a laugh.
“This dog is very attached to you,” Mom said, and I looked up at her, her mouth wobbling with all those years of secret pain.
The rain that had been flirting with the island all afternoon opened up, and for a few minutes, my mother and I just listened to the ceaseless rush of it.
“Does Lily know she’s bipolar?”
“Oh, ayuh, she does. I got her on medication, but once she got pregnant, she went off it. I don’t think she was real steady after that.”
It wasn’t uncommon. Treated, bipolar disorder could be managed quite well in most cases. Two of my med school professors had talked openly about having it. But for some people, the medication made them feel flat. Gray. The mood swings and mania were the price they paid for a life full of color.
Maybe I could help my sister yet. I was a doctor, after all.
Mom twisted her napkin into a hard little knot. “Do you think Poe’s got the same thing?”
“No,” I said. “I think Poe’s just gone through a long, hard time.”
“I tried to help. I went out every year, sometimes more.”
“You’re a good mother. And a good grandmother, too.”
Mom snorted, then blew her nose. “I don’t know about that,” she said.
“Well, I do.” I reached across the table and gripped her hand, and after a second, she squeezed back, and we just sat there for a minute, looking at each other, our eyes teary, our hands linked.
“You killed Tweety, didn’t you?” she asked.
“Oof. Yes. I’m so sorry. I really didn’t mean to.”
She smiled. “At least he didn’t suffer.”
I didn’t disabuse her of that notion. My mother had been through enough. For a long time, we just held hands and listened to the rain.
Sullivan called me Saturday afternoon at two. “You free tonight?” he asked.
“You know,” I said, stroking Boomer’s ears, “you should probably call earlier. I’m a very busy person with many friends and responsibilities.” The truth was, I’d spent yesterday weeping on the couch, the bed and the lounge chair on the deck. Hopefully, I had it out of my system now.
“So you’re free?”
“Pick you up at eight?”
I’d be glad to see him. Knowing my father was gone was like a stone on my heart. I told myself it didn’t really change anything, except of course, it did.
There was no upside to it. My mind kept saying At least he didn’t suffer and Now you know and This is better than having him out there, still not caring enough about you and Lily, maybe homeless or a junkie.
But the little girl in me was so, so sad.
Sully would be a balm.
At eight o’clock sharp as the sun was a red ball sinking in the clear, pink sky, I heard the sound of a motor. A boat motor. Sure enough, there was a good-looking guy coming toward my dock in a little outboard boat. Boomer wagged his tail.
“Ahoy,” I said as Sully tossed me the rope. “Fancy meeting you here.” I wrapped the rope around the cleat.
“Figured I’d take you for a ride,” he said.