She came into the bedroom where I lay curled on the bed, numb and broken.
“Mama,” she whispered, “who’s bringing us supper tonight?”
I blinked my tear-swollen eyes at the ceiling a few times, trying to focus, then shook my head tiredly. “No one, baby girl,” I answered. “We’re on our own now.”
“Ummm…” she ventured, with all the seriousness of a hungry seven-year-old, “are we going to starve?”
A wan smile flitted across my face. “No, Beary girl, I won’t let us starve. We can do this. I CAN cook, y’know.”
She giggled, then crawled into bed beside, fitting herself into the curve of my body. “I love you, Mama,” she said, then paused, and nudged me back to the question at hand: “Can you fix me something now?”
Something like a laugh rose in my throat and I playfully shoved her off the bed. Just like her Daddy, with a one-track mind when it came to eating. I swung my feet over the side and followed her into the kitchen. We stood in front of the open refrigerator and surveyed our options. We’d been blessed with kind friends delivering food to our front door for the last two weeks, but we were down to a few leftovers – nothing that would make a whole meal. I started pulling things from the fridge and the freezer and the pantry and somehow, created and plated a mostly nutritious meal for her. I took one look at the kitchen table, with Kevin’s empty chair, and shook my head. I can cook, I thought, but I can’t sit at that table and not see him across from me. Not yet.
“Picnic!” I announced, and she squealed with delight, then raced off to find a towel to spread on the floor.
I sat in Kevin’s recliner and watched her eat and laugh at whatever Disney Channel sit-com she’d found to entertain herself.
I did it, Kev. I cooked a meal that you weren’t here to eat. I hated it…but I did it.
That night, I started to emerge from the blur that had surrounded me since the funeral. I needed to be strong for our girl. I needed her to know that I could take care of her. I needed her to know that we would be all right. I needed her to know that we could do things by ourselves – or maybe I just needed to prove to myself that I could do things by myself. I probably could’ve called someone that night, said, “I’m too sad to feed my daughter. Can you help?” And help would’ve been on the way. But I needed to get back on my feet, to feel like I could do something – even something simple, like fix a meal. Deciding not to ask for help that night was hard, but I knew I had to do it.
So I fixed that first meal, then I kept on, just like Kevin wanted. As lovely and generous and sympathetic as our family and friends were, we had to figure out on our own how to survive each day with the grief and loss. We had to get back to a routine: cooking, cleaning, laundry, learning. And we did. Slowly, together, my girl and I grew stronger; we became a team, forging a close connection, slowly healing, slowing putting bits of our life back together, slowly creating a new normal.
As the days and weeks and months went by, sometimes I felt a little stronger. I felt like I could do what Kevin wanted me to do: go on with life and raise our beautiful girl. The funny thing was, the stronger I felt, the more comfortable I felt asking for help. It felt okay to let people see that I was struggling, that I couldn’t handle everything. It felt okay to expose that raw grief, that uncertainty.
It felt okay to just ask.
I sat slumped on the bottom step of the back porch. My toe throbbed from kicking in frustration, and not a little anger, at the metal leg of the swimming pool frame. I buried my head in my hands, sobbing. I can’t do this. I tried, but I can’t do this. The metal frame, which had gone together so easily back in June, which had created an oasis of water for my little mermaid of a daughter all summer, was now taunting me, mocking my inability to disassemble it.
I lifted the bottom of Kevin’s t-shirt and swiped it across my eyes. No time for tears, I thought, I’ve got to get this pool apart. Dry leaves fluttered through the air and skittered across the concrete patio, some landing in the inch of water still lapping the bottom of the pool. Autumn was upon us and the pool had to be stored.
“Beary,” I called. “I need you to help me a second, please. I think this is going to take two people.”
She bounded down the deck steps and grabbed the metal leg, just like I told her. She pulled back one way and I pulled back the other, but the piece was firmly stuck and I was firmly convinced that if, by some miracle, I did yank it free, my girl would go flying across the yard and land high in a tree. The thought crossed my mind that if I had to call the fire department to rescue her, surely they could also tug apart this frame while they were here…but I shook my head ruefully. Not a good enough reason to catapult my Bear through the air.
“S’okay, Bear, you tried. This stupid piece is just stuck. You can go back in; I’ll figure it out,” I told her. She threw her arms around me in a squeezy hug. “I love you, Mama!” Then she was off.
Tears welled up again. I can’t do this. But… I reached for my phone and dialed my sister. “Hey,” I managed before my voice turned watery, “are you coming to town today? This pool” – I stopped to swallow a sob – “this pool has me completely defeated.”
An hour later – and, my sister added, with two bachelor’s and a master’s degree between us – we’d finally managed to figure out the problem. It wasn’t that we lacked strength. No, the summer heat had melded the pool’s vinyl sleeves to the metal frame. There was no give when tugging at the poles; they were stuck. We broke two rulers and a yardstick, wedging them between the metal frame and the vinyl pool liner and wiggling the stuck plastic free, but we pried the pieces apart and then easily – easily! – pulled the metal frame apart.
We laughed and talked and sluiced the rest of the water from the pool, then hauled the liner up to the deck and slung it over the rail to dry. She headed off for her Saturday shopping and I sank into one of the deck chairs to rest.
My girl wandered out and flung herself into a chair, too. “Why did Aunt Bebe come?” she asked.
“Because I asked her, Little Bear.”