Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Year of Sundays: Chapter 1 Part 1

Chapter 1 – May 1

Chapter 1, Part 1 of 4

On the last Sunday of her life, our mother called us into her room one by one because there were private words she wanted to say to each of her children. "Someday you might tell each other – in fact, I hope that you will, a long time from now, when you are all together and remembering me fondly. How fun it might be then to share your mother's last words. In the meantime, how intriguing to guess and imagine what I might have said to your siblings."

But first, she wanted to know about next Sunday.

On Sunday afternoons we gathered at our mother's house. Silas, the eldest and only boy, and we the four sisters.

"Oh, Mama," Elizabeth said softly. "No one will want to do Sunday if you've gone to meet the Lord." She was the oldest girl, now thirty-seven.

"Nonsense," our mother disagreed, with a firm shake of her head. "Of course you won't feel like it, and that is why you must. Sundays aren't about me, Sundays are about keeping track of each other. I want it settled right now." She raised her eyebrows as she looked at us, the expectation of a dying woman that her children will, indeed, honor her last request. For a brief moment her face lost its tired shadow of the past few weeks, and she looked strong and fierce. In fact, she looked exactly like the glue that holds a family together.

We siblings glanced at one another, and Josie, still the baby at twenty, shrugged and said, "Okay, we'll meet here, as usual."

"Good," our mother nodded. "Now Silas, help me get settled. When I'm done with you, it will be Elizabeth's turn, and so on."

We knew the drill. She would see us in birth order, from the eldest to the youngest. It has always been this way. First Silas, then Elizabeth, then Melanie, then me – Jessamine, and finally Josie, the baby.

I excused myself. "Shout for me when it's my turn. I'm going to make a phone call." I made a dramatic swipe across my eyes, and bolted up the stairs.

It was a bald-faced lie, but no one challenged me. They might have assumed I was going off to my old bedroom to cry. And let them think it.

When I was a little girl, I discovered that I could hear almost everything going on in our father's office from inside my closet. The office that is now our mother's sick room.

Damned if I was going to wait however long to hear some convoluted version of my mother's final words to my siblings.

The inside of the closet smelled like cedar chips and secrets. If I had ever felt guilty for eavesdropping, I was long past it. I was proud to be the family secret-keeper. Of course, I don't know every family secret. Like I've never found out exactly what happened to Melanie while she was gone, even though whatever it was made her grow up crazy. We never talked about it as a family, and I never managed to overhear the details, either.

But. I've heard more secrets in the dark of my closet than any of them would ever guess.

"A mother knows things, Silas, and hopes to know when to speak and when to keep silent. I am done with being silent. I will be gone before next Sunday."

He feels the quickening of fear and jerks his head up, "How can you be so sure?"

"I just am. Don't worry about it." The mother stares at her only boy as if she can see into his very soul. "I know that you don't think you're going to be fine, but you're going to be fine. Give your heart and your truth to your sisters. They might surprise you."

He shakes his head slowly, still denying to himself that she'll be gone.

"You were such a happy little boy, you know. Do you remember?"

"I remember, Mother."

"You were open and lighthearted, always had a new joke or magic trick on Sunday, and you did your best to wow us. Every week we waited to see what new performance you had, and we'd clap and cheer when you made us laugh. I can't remember exactly when that changed. The stormy teenage years, I suppose, and we all let it go on, because we thought adolescent boys were supposed to be moody and sullen and full of anger. And then you were through it, or maybe learned to hide it, and started college. Dad and I often talked about how driven you were, how nothing was going to stop you from attaining success and respect. And look at you! Designing beautiful houses. Taking an image from a customer's head and making it appear on a plot of land.

"We were so proud of you – I'm still so proud of you that I could burst – and yet I always knew that you were driven by something I didn't fully understand. And the happy, lighthearted little boy never came back. You closed yourself off from us. You've always shown up on Sundays, yes, but you watch the others more than you contribute. You're here, but barely. And so often you're never quite recovered from the night before. I used to worry about that, you know, about your drinking, worry that maybe you were taking drugs, as well, and I hoped you'd find happiness in something, before it all caught up with you."

"Ah, Mom," the son groans, rolling his eyes. He doesn't want to hear this, doesn't need to hear this. Not now. "Do we have to do this? Are you going to tell me you'll haunt me if I don't get sober?"

"No. That's not what I have to say."

"Good, because I don't want to hear it."

"I think you're already on your way."

"What?" Surprise, because he's made no conscious effort to be sober, that's for sure.

"I think you're already drinking much less than you used to. You show up earlier on Sundays, your eyes are bright, you're talking to the girls more than you have for years, even if your words have bite. Sometimes they need to hear some honesty, those girls, even when it's not nice. And, correct me if I'm wrong, you even told a joke a couple of weeks ago. You've been engaged in our goings on, and don't even try to tell me that my terminal diagnosis gave you an attitude adjustment – I won't believe it. Because I know your secret."

The son lets out a laugh that's as dry as an autumn leaf. Great, she's going to die believing he's about to get married and have babies. He couldn't let her think that. "I doubt it, Mom. You think I met a girl." He can feel the pain of bitter laughter sharply in the back of his throat, but holds it back.

"No. I think you met a boy."

He gasps a sharp intake of breath, closes his eyes, then opens them, and understands immediately that he's just shown her the truth.

"You see, a mother knows things," she tells him, very gently.

His next words are strangled, because he can barely breathe. "Please tell me you and Dad never discussed this."

"Of course not," her voice is strong, firm, eyes flashing. "It would have made him crazy. I figured it out very slowly. I wish I'd have known. I wish you'd have told me as soon as you figured it out yourself. I could have helped you. I would have told you that I love you no matter what. I would have said that all I want for any of my children is for them to be happy."

"Thank you," he says, and his voice is soft, his lips a hint away from a smile. He almost gets a chance to relax, because his mother just said all the right words. But then...

"I want you to tell your sisters, next Sunday."

The thought brings a jab of panic. "Aw, Mom, that's a terrible idea." He imagines how each sister might react... Elizabeth – Mrs. Hyperactive Christian, a year younger than him, and desperate to conceive a child – shock and disgust, maybe some choice biblical phrases. Melanie, well, any excuse for a drink or a bump. He can imagine Jessie and Josie giggling and teasing him – the news would be the funniest thing they ever heard – hell, they'd probably love him the more for it. But even still, not their business.

His mother, the mind reader.

"No, it's not a terrible idea at all. It's a wonderful idea. Why bother with Sundays if you're not going to be real? Tell them so they can get to know who you really are. What good does it do to come together and pretend? Live your truth. Tell them. Elizabeth might have a hard time with it, but Jessie and Josie will always be your cheerleaders. And Melanie, well, I'm starting to wonder about her, too."

He lets loose a genuine smile. "Melanie's all right – she just has low standards."

"Too low – she'll never make anything of her life at the rate she's going. And believe me, I've got some words in store for her.

"I've said my piece, and given you my last request. Now... tell me about this boy."

"Why do you think there's a particular boy?" He wonders how he gave himself away.

"I've seen a mellowing in you, a happiness that's never been there before. What else could it be? So tell me about him."

His eyes go soft as he watches a memory, brain searching for appropriate words. Hot...tight... wet. Mouth...ass... skin... sweat.

He sits in silence for too long, then says, "He's, um... ah... blond."

His mother lets out a delighted laugh. "Is that all you can come up with?"

"It's all I can come up with to tell my mother. Christ."

"Well, think on it while I talk to the girls. He must have some redeeming qualities, because it took you long enough to find him. I want you to stay with me tonight, because I don't have time to meet this boy, and I want to hear all about him. But now I need to speak to Elizabeth."

Upstairs in the literal closet, I shook with repressed laughter because I've known Silas's secret for years. I saw him in a local bar once, his arms around another man, kissing him like a man kisses a woman. I thought later that I should have just marched up to him then and there and said, "Hey Silas, how's it hanging?" and end this secret-keeping.

The next morning, Sunday, I woke up sick with dread. What if he'd caught a glimpse of me at the bar? What if my co-workers recognized him after I'd left, what if they'd talked to him? I'd been known to show off pictures of him at work. "Look at my handsome older brother, the eligible bachelor..."

But I'm good at keeping secrets. When mom asked about girls' night out, I said I hadn't gone because I seemed to be catching a bug. I didn't have to explain about going to a drag show at a gay bar, or the fact that one of my co-workers was in the drag show. I'd been excited to tell the family shocking stories of drag queens and same-sex relationships, and to get a good rousing debate going with Elizabeth, my highly religious sister, and Melanie, the resident devil's advocate. But I kept quiet and to myself, continuing the pretense that I was coming down with something.

The next Sunday was easier. I was getting used to knowing that my brother was gay. I didn't personally have a problem with it, anyway. I always liked gay people. They seem honest, somehow, as if they've done their soul-searching and come out of it more whole than other people. And they were attractive to me for their youthful pursuit of self-discovery. I yearned for gay boyfriends – campy queens with a flair for drama. As far as Silas, who was no campy queen, well, I just needed a little time to focus my lens of knowledge in this new way.

I always worried that Silas would marry someone I didn't like. He was the big brother, and as such, he was larger than life, a hero, and he belonged to us. A boy who'd grown up surrounded by four sisters, teasing and tormenting, and greeting their dates at the door with a scowl. He'd never approved of our choices in men. Once I knew his secret, I could kind of see why.

I felt a moment of sheer relief that made me giddy. Soon they all would know about Silas. It struck me as too silly that I was sitting in my closet listening to family secrets, while Silas has been in his own closet all this time for no purpose. I imagined, for a moment, the bru-ha-ha his news will create next Sunday. It might be the most exciting Sunday of all time.

And then the horror slammed home. My mother expected to be dead before Sunday. She was setting us up to continue without her – setting us up to have "issues." If Silas came out of the closet, we'd have something to talk about.

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