Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Sweethaven Summer

A Sweethaven Summer
Guidepost Books (February 7, 2012)
Courtney Walsh



The church smelled like flowers and dead people. Dead person. Just one. Her mom. The visitation the night before had sent her into an unexpected daze. She’d smiled. Thanked people for coming. Pretended she’d be okay.

She stood at the back of the sanctuary, her black skirt clinging to her waist and thighs and then flaring out slightly. Mom had always liked that skirt. She’d even borrowed it once to go on a date. One of the few Campbell had ever known her mother to agree to. It had always been just the two of them—and Mom seemed okay with that. Now, though, Campbell wondered if her mom would’ve fought harder if she’d had someone in her life. Would she still be dead if she’d had more to live for?

Surely a strong-willed daughter wasn’t enough.

Inside, her anger wadded tight at the injustice she’d suffered, losing her mother when neither of them was ready for it.

Orphaned at twenty-four.

It had only been a week ago that Mom had called and asked her to come over.

“I have some things I want to talk to you about, hon.”

Campbell could tell by her tone—a tone that radiated finality—that Mom was squaring things away. Getting those proverbial ducks in a row. Campbell almost refused to go. She’d argued she had to work—do laundry—do anything but talk with her mother about the inevitable.

About her death.

But Mom had one-upped her. “We need to talk about your father.”

The words hung between them as Campbell tried to think of a response.

Mom had refused to talk about her dad, only saying they were better off this way, and despite their close relationship, Campbell had always wondered about him. Who was he? Where was he? Did he know about her?

Campbell pushed Mom’s front door open, expecting the delicious aroma of hazelnut coffee and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Instantly, she knew something was wrong. She called out to her mom but was met with silence.

“Mom?” She called her name again, then walked through the living room and into the kitchen where she saw Mom, lying still on the hardwood floor, her legs bent in an unnatural position, her arms limp at her sides.

“Mom!” Campbell dropped to the floor beside her and found only a wisp of breath on her lips.

Several minutes later, Campbell watched as the paramedics hoisted her mother onto a stretcher and then put her in the back of the ambulance, unsure of how or when she’d even managed to dial 911. Before he closed the door, one of the men gestured for her to get in. She did, almost robotically. Moving as though in slow motion, she braced herself for the ride to the hospital.

For days, Campbell begged her mom to wake up. Begged her to come back so they could have that conversation over coffee. She had too many questions for Mom to really be gone.

Now, she’d never know what Mom planned to tell her about her father.

Campbell shook the thoughts away and perused the sanctuary, astonished by the number of people who had turned out to pay their respects. The entire staff of Liberty East High School now sat solemnly in the pews. Church friends. Former students. Even the mail carrier who had delivered their mail as far back as Campbell could remember sat on an aisle, his head bowed in reverence as he waited for the service to start.

So many people whose lives had somehow been touched by her mother.

“You wouldn’t believe this if you saw it, Mom,” Campbell whispered under her breath.

Not wanting to make small talk, she pretended to be interested in the program. She wanted to regain her composure. Sometimes the smallest thought popped into her mind, and her eyes involuntarily filled with tears. A glance toward the front of the sanctuary told her this wasn’t a dream. No, she actually stood there, in the back of the church, waiting for her mother’s funeral service to start.

Pastor Scott walked through the foyer and stopped beside her. His kind eyes were familiar after so many years in his church. Even as a rebellious teen when she’d begged to sleep in, her mother had insisted on their going to service. In the end, her faith hadn’t done her any good. God couldn’t heal Mom. Or wouldn’t heal her. And worse, He’d stolen her away at the most inopportune time.

While Campbell hadn’t felt ready to finalize things with Mom, she had to admit, she had questions. Not only about her father’s identity, but about Mom’s childhood—her past. Things Mom had always kept to herself. Things Campbell had stopped asking about for fear of hurting her.

If only she’d risked it.

Anger pelted her heart like a hailstorm.

She pushed it aside.

“You doing all right?” Pastor Scott put his arm around her and squeezed.

She nodded.

“Okay, we’re getting ready to start. I’ll go in first and you can follow like we talked about.” He left her standing in the foyer in her black skirt and gray blouse. Would she ever wear the colors of spring again? Would she ever want to?

Black felt so appropriate.

After the pastor took his place on the stage, it was her turn. As if she were a bride, Campbell began the trek down the aisle. She kept her eyes focused on Pastor Scott, a man, she felt embarrassed to say, she’d imagined as her father on more than one occasion.

Just as she’d done with her third grade gym teacher. Her mother’s male colleagues. Pretty much any man Mom’s age with blond hair and a lanky frame, like her. She didn’t get her features from Mom, so they must’ve come from her dad. Whoever he was.

She reached the front of the sanctuary, avoiding the teary eyes of the crowd, and sat in the pew. She peered down at her long-fingered hands resting in her lap. The blood had left them, leaving them white and cold. She rubbed them together to warm them. It didn’t work.

Pastor Scott glanced at her and then smiled that soft smile. He’d have been a good father to her. She’d have called him “Daddy.” He would’ve loved her and told her she was beautiful; told her she wasn’t an accident. Just a surprise. He’d have made her feel better when the teasing started, told her those kids didn’t know what they were talking about. He would have. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He wasn’t the one.

Why had Mom waited so long to come clean about her dad’s identity?

She looked at the enlarged photo of her mom, radiant and smiling, that stood on an easel near the front of the church. She couldn’t imagine her mother taking that secret to the grave. Campbell deserved to know—surely Mom had planned to explain everything.

Campbell had asked a few times, but her mother had always said there was no need for her to know. He wasn’t in their life because he wasn’t good for them. Was he in jail? Was he a serial killer? She’d never know.

And every time she’d brought it up, she sensed a hurt behind her mother’s eyes. As though Campbell implied she hadn’t given her enough or that she needed a father because she had a lousy mother. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

Campbell tried to focus on the service. She chided herself for allowing her mind to wander at her own mother’s funeral.

Six pallbearers carried the shiny wooden box to the front, and everyone turned their attention to the pastor.

“Today we say good-bye to a woman we all knew and dearly loved. I don’t have to tell you what a bright light Suzanne Carter has always been in this church, in the high school, in the community.”

She had been a bright light. Campbell’s chest tightened in an emotional tug of war. The part of her that wanted to smile lost to the part that wanted to cry.

She dabbed her cheek with a tissue and tried to compose herself. She had to speak in a few moments. Nausea rippled through her stomach like a stone plunked in calm water.

Pastor Scott continued saying nice things about her mother. A woman everyone loved. Talented. Humble. A friend to all. A devoted mom. A tutor. An art lover.

He left nothing out.

His gaze moved across the sea of faces and landed on her with a slight nod. She felt her eyes widen. Time to stand. Would her legs hold her weight?

“Now we’ll hear a few words from Suzanne’s daughter Campbell.”

She grabbed the pew in front of her and pulled herself to her feet on wobbly knees. Her stomach had hollowed, and moisture coated her cold palms. She smoothed her skirt and begged her feet to carry her to the stage.

Up the three small steps she went with a prayer of thanks she hadn’t tripped. She took the pastor’s spot behind a wooden pulpit and peered over the crowd that had gathered to say good-bye to her mother. They all expected her to say something appropriate. Expected brilliance. It’s what her mother would’ve delivered.

She cleared her throat and pulled the microphone a smidge closer to her mouth. It fed back, its tinny ring cutting through the silence. She clung to the sides of the pulpit as though its wooden frame gave her the ability to stand.

“You all know what a wonderful person my mom was.” She’d practiced her speech in her head. She should’ve written it down. Standing there, with faces staring back, well-practiced words escaped her.

“She…uh…she loved you all as if you were part of her family. You were her family. We were.” She smiled and glanced at the photo of her mother. “Mom had a way of putting people at ease. A way of making you feel like you could do anything. I think that’s because she could do anything. She must’ve figured we were all as competent and graceful as she was.”

Campbell’s eyes scanned the crowd. Mom’s best friend Tilly sat near the front, nodding her support, a sweet smile on her face. The entire high school had the morning off to attend the service in honor of her mom. So many of her former teachers and many of Mom’s students now sat attentively, looking at her.

She cleared her throat and tried to remember what had come next when she’d rehearsed this in front of the bathroom mirror that morning. Mom’s paintings caught her eye. “My mother was an artist. I think she always has been. She described herself as ‘different,’ but it was that artistic eye that separated her from the masses. It transformed the way she saw the world. The way she taught me to see the world.” She nodded at the thought. “She believed in people—even though it sometimes hurt her.”

Mom had always taught her to believe the best about people. The older Campbell got, the harder that had become.

A lump formed in her throat, and she coughed to clear it. “We knew Mom was…dying.” The word jumped out at her and she had to look up at the ceiling to keep from crying. “But no matter how much time you have to prepare, it never seems like enough. She lived a wonderful life, cut short much too soon. She wouldn’t want us to dwell on that, though. She would want us to live more deeply—more passionately—more beautifully. And that is the best way I can think of to honor her memory.”

Even as she said the words, she wondered if she could live the passionate life her mother had dreamed for her. Every ounce of her passion had been sunk in her photography—not in people or relationships. Somehow, she imagined her mother wouldn’t approve.

“Art is a wonderful thing, Cam,” she’d say. “But you have to fill up your creative tank. It’s the people in your life who do that.”

She’d purposely kept her remarks brief, and once again, she begged her legs to transport her across the floor and to the safety of the solid pew beneath her.

Sniffles mingled with the piano as the chorus of “It is Well” rang through the vast room, filling the air with a heavy sadness.

“The song isn’t sad,” her mom had insisted. “The writer is rejoicing.”

“I know where the song came from, Mom. The writer was grieving. He’d just lost his four daughters when their ship to England went down.”

“Exactly. And even in that tragedy, he sang ‘It is well, it is well, with my soul.’” Mom sang the line herself, then smiled. “Pretty easy to trust God when everything’s going your way. Much harder to do that when your life is spiraling out of control.” Mom shrugged then as if she’d said the simplest thing ever, but Campbell couldn’t help but think it sounded a lot easier than it actually was.

Would things ever be well with her soul again?

Pastor Scott ended with a short prayer. Heartfelt and peaceful. Maybe Mom sat overhead on a cloud next to Jesus. Surely she would continue to watch over her only daughter. Would God allow that? Is that how things worked in heaven?

The pastor walked down the stairs and stopped at the edge of her pew, waiting for her to stand at his side. He offered his arm, even though he wasn’t—and never would be—her father. The kind gesture moved Campbell almost as much as the realization that this was it. Time to say good-bye. One last look at the coffin and she mustered the strength to stand. She turned to face Pastor Scott.

He nodded as if to tell her she’d be okay. She weaved her own long arm through his, and they started down the aisle. Then, as if she were watching from a distant place in the room—as if she’d left her body—she headed toward the back of the church. As she walked, she scanned the room. A sea of recognizable faces.

Except for one man.

Tall. Lanky. Older. Gray hair atop a long face. A stranger.

She caught his eye, but he quickly looked away. At the floor. Out the window. Anywhere but at her.

Who is he?

She reached the end of the aisle and followed Pastor Scott into the foyer.

“We can head right over to the cemetery if you’re ready,” he said.

Campbell had made arrangements to ride with the pastor and his wife to the burial. There had been talk of a car to take her—alone—to the cemetery, but she refused. What could be lonelier than an empty car ride to a cemetery?

“Almost. Do you know who that man is?” She nodded in the direction of the stranger.

Pastor Scott followed her gaze and then shook his head. “Not sure. Maybe an old friend? Colleague?”

Campbell frowned. She expected to know everyone at the funeral. And with the exception of this one man, she did.

She stood in place until Pastor Scott’s wife emerged from the sanctuary, followed by the rest of the crowd.

“You ready?” The pastor waited.

Campbell glanced back at the old man, but he’d gone. She scanned the lobby. There was no sign of him. No sign that a stranger had ever been there, paying his respects.

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