Thirty eight minutes have passed with nothing of substance being said within the walls of my small kitchen. Thirty eight minutes have passed without any of my siblings daring to speak what needs to be discussed. My coffee has grown cold and my patience thin. I refuse to start the discussion when I know I will be the one to end it.
All of us are here from the oldest to the youngest sibling. My bet is Aubree, the second eldest girl but the third sibling, will be the one to start this heavy conversation. Heavy is a good way to describe the weight that seems to be crushing each of my brothers and sisters. They all sit hunched with their eyes casted down reeking of anxious anticipation.
“So … tomorrow,” Aubree begins still not looking up from the mug she has been coddling between her hands. Called it.
Kennedy, the fourth sibling and youngest girl, visibly pales but with good reason. She was the one after all who found mom last year. I’m not really even sure why she’s here. None of us would ever ask her to go, she should know that.
We would never ask Eli to go either, not that he could on his own anyways. Eli is our youngest sibling at ten years younger than me. Kennedy was upset for a long time about no longer being the baby. She was six when Eli came along. Six years with no new kids and then boom, here’s Eli. He was quite a shock for the family but that was twelve years ago now. The only reason he is even part of this meeting is because he lives here with me and he demanded to be included.
Jared, the second eldest sibling after me and the first born boy, clears his throat. He looks up, making him the first to make eye contact with me since they all showed up and sat down. “We need to decide who is going to visit their graves tomorrow,” Jared states as if none of us knew why we were gathered in my cramped kitchen all nursing cold coffee. Well everyone besides Eli. He is drinking the lemonade he made on his own yesterday that is sweet enough to cause an avalanche of teeth to fall out of one’s mouth.
We all went the first year together to put flowers on dad’s grave, mom included. On his second anniversary of passing we all planned to go the day after since it landed on a Thursday and we were all working besides Eli who had basketball practice. Kennedy had insisted that someone still needed to go because it felt wrong not to. After some persuading she convinced mom to go ahead and take the flowers and visit. Kennedy still ended up taking off an hour early so she could stop by. That is when she found mom. That is why no one wants to visit dad’s grave on his third year anniversary and mom’s one year anniversary.
“Obliviously Eli and Kennedy won’t be the ones to go,” Jarred starts again. Although he is speaking my eyes are on Aubree. She is making the face she always makes when she is weighing on speaking her mind.
“Say what you want Aubree,” I instruct cutting in on Jared. He looks relived to not have to continue. Another indicator that I will be the one to go.
Aubree looks up with wide eyes and parted lips. She apparently hadn’t decided whether or not to voice her thoughts. I’m glad I could free her from the choice. “I don’t want to be the one to go. I ordered the flower arrangements. Both of them will be delivered to the cemetery and placed on their graves. I ordered them; I know what they look like. I don’t want to be the one to go,” she informs us speaking lowly while slightly shaking her head no to herself.
“Then you won’t be.” My reply releases her body to visibly relax. Aubree sinks back into her chair and takes her first sip of the now cold coffee. And then there were two.
I look to Jared as his eyes seek to find mine also. I won’t ask him. He has to make the decision for himself. Only after moments tick by with no words being spoken does he lower his eyes back down to his collapsed hands that rest on my scratched table. The table was new when I bought it but Eli took care of that for me quickly.
“You know I’ll go if you need me to,” Jared finally declares but it isn’t what I need to hear.
“But do you want to?” I ask already knowing the answer.
Jared’s eyes dart to mine and then back down. He releases a sigh and his shoulders lower. “No. I don’t want to go but I can,” my brother confesses. I know it is taking a lot for him to admit when he feels like he is failing the family and me. But it’s not his responsibly, it’s mine.
“Then it’s decided. I’ll go tomorrow,” I promise having known I was always going to be the one going. It is my burden to bear. My siblings who were tense have now relaxed and those who were at ease now look apprehensive. All four sets of eyes are on me now.
“You asked us if we wanted to go but you never said if you did or didn’t,” Kennedy claims. A sad smile finds its way across my face at the truth she has spoken.
“I appreciate your concern but what I want doesn’t matter. I am the oldest, it is my responsibility,” I reply. None of my siblings protest. The truth is they expect me to bear this burden for them just as I have always done. There are many things I have taken on in hopes to spare my brothers and sisters for the marks it left behind. They all knew I would be the one to go just as they expected me to take care of Eli when mom died last year. Eli is my responsibility just like each of them are despite them all being adults now.
The air carries the same slight chill as it did a year ago yet I do not shudder. I only place my hands within my coat pockets as I let my feet carry me to their burial site. Flower arrangements rest on their headstones just as Aubree assured us they would. The arrangement is neither extravagant nor colorful but tasteful still. It is exactly what I would have expected Aubree to have chosen. The flowers are all white and only consist of lilies and roses. They are beautiful just as my mother was.
Kennedy looks the most like mom with her high cheek bones and slender lips. Although their facial features are most alike, my hair holds the same hue as hers did. I grew up believing my mother to be the most beautiful woman alive. Over the years I found that her beauty was nothing more than a weapon she used to distract others from her ugly inside. Still I was always able to overlook her ugliness until a year ago today.
Mom had called me frantically that evening. The friend that had given her a ride to the cemetery had dropped her off and bailed. Mom knew I wouldn’t be able to leave without a big pay loss at work yet she called me first instead of anyone else. She was right to do so because I immediately left just as she knew I would. When I found her she was planted on his tombstone. The white lily and blue carnation arrangement that Aubree picked out was lying on the ground upside down. I knew Aubree had picked it out because white lilies have always been her favorite. The messed up arrangement was upsetting but the empty beer bottles that laid beside it was even more so. I still remember every word she said that night.
One Year Ago
“What took you so long? I only have one beer left,” mom chides me. She does indeed only have one left. Five empty bottles lay scattered at her feet.
I don’t dignify her question or her complaint with an answer, not while she drinks sitting on my father’s grave on the two year anniversary of his death. “Get down from there. What is wrong with you?” I ask nearly shouting. I know the question is insensitive. Her husband is dead. My dad is dead. A lowlife murdered him on the street for his wallet that only contained fifty two dollars and a picture of all five of his kids surrounding a Santa at the mall.
“Wrong? Nothing is wrong. Everything is right. This is my victory party and as the oldest I thought you deserved to join this year. You’re old enough to know the truth. You just gotta keep it a secret for me,” mom laughs out raising her arms above her head with her last beer in hand.
“What are you talking about?” I ask. I am just as confused as she must be. Mom had started drinking and partying more often about a year before dad died but since he’s been gone it has become so much worse.
“Here,” she pats the stone beside her, “take a seat.” I remain where I am standing but it doesn’t hold her up. “Your father was leaving me. He threatened to take me to court if I didn’t give him Eli. He was going to take my baby boy. He called me an unfit alcoholic mother and told me I would never be allowed to keep him.”
Mom pauses to take a drink and looks to me but I have nothing to say. I didn’t know they had been fighting. I had been moved out for two years when dad died. Jared, Kennedy, and Aubree had all been away at college. Eli was the only sibling left at home and he never mentioned any of this.
“I had to do something. I knew if he took it to court I would lose but I wasn’t going to just give up my son. It wasn’t really that hard either. I found a guy at the bar that was willing to do the deed as long as he could keep the wallet and all of the money in it. The rest is now history and I won,” my mother declares in triumph. Smiling as if she isn’t admitting to her oldest daughter that she hired her husband’s death.
I stare at the beautiful woman sitting before me but all I see is ugly. Her laughter sounds muffled and my vision slightly blurs. I can’t concentrate on the woman before me. The person who is supposed to be my mother. How could she? He’s dead because of her. One hand rises to my mouth and the other to my stomach. I feel nauseous at the realization. My mother is a selfish killer. She has everything she wanted at the loss of my father. She has Eli. Eli can’t stay with her. Dad wasn’t going to leave him so now neither can I. If I try to take this to court how can I be sure she won’t hire someone to take care of me as well. I can’t leave my siblings alone in the world but I also can’t let Eli stay with her. I am the oldest; this is my responsibility to fix.
I lower my hand from my mouth. I let my grief fade into determination. “Oh mom,” I say shaking my head from side to side. I step towards her with outstretched arms. She lifts her arms to wrap them around me in a hug but I don’t give her the chance. “This is for Eli,” I whisper. I plant my palms against her chest and shove her back with every ounce of strength that answers my call.
The sound of skull meeting granite cracks against the quiet evening like the first sound of thunder in a storm. Warm blood finds itself spotted across my cheek. I do not flinch. I do not react at all. I am the oldest. This was my responsibility, it had to be me. Eli will be safe now. He will call me later tonight when mom doesn’t come home. I will come back to the grave yard alone to find where she must’ve passed out, falling backwards and hitting her head after too many drinks. Unlike mom I will not tell my brothers and sisters. They will not have to bear this burden or carry this secret. I also will not tell them about dad. They will never have to know.
I take one last look at the woman who failed this family. I make a promise to myself to not do the same. I leave my mother’s body sprawled across the ground among the empty bottles and the white lilies that now run red.
I regret nothing about my choice to protect Eli and the rest of my family. My only regret is that my plan did not turn out exactly as I had intended. Kennedy felt bad about not visiting dad on his actual anniversary so she went. She is who found mom. We found Kennedy shortly after she called us all crying, sitting no more than ten feet away from mom’s body. I made Eli stay in the car that night but the day of mom’s burial he pointed out blood that didn’t get completely cleaned from dad’s headstone. The engraving of his death date was still etched in blood. I found it morbidly fitting.
I take out my phone and send a group text before returning home to Eli to make supper.
Me: The flowers are beautiful Aubree and everything looks good. I am making spaghetti if anyone wants to come over.
Kennedy: Thank you for going.
Me: You don’t have to thank me. I’m the oldest, it’s my responsibility.