Enid is preparing Isabel’s favorite salad, radicchio and butter lettuce tossed with paper-thin slices of Bosc pear, topped with glazed walnuts and drizzled with poppyseed dressing. Lorene is coming for lunch, and then the two of them — just as they have done every October 12 for the last four years — will spend the rest of the afternoon making the rounds of thrift stores in search of the ultimate bargain and something more.
The weather is beautiful, an Indian summer brimming over with a sky so blue it reminds Enid of the day she and Jim first brought their precious little baby home more than 20 years ago underneath another clear blue sky the same color as the blue sleep suit that Isabel wore as a toddler, long before they began calling her Tinkerbell, Tink, or her father’s pet name, Stinkerbell.
She remembers how Tink so loved that particular pajama suit with its panorama of cumulus clouds floating across the front. Enid, who was very particular about clothes, had cut off the rubber-soled feet from the pant legs so that Isabel could continue to wear it until even Tink admitted that it was too small. Where was that sleep suit now? Had it gone from being a dust rag to taking up space as part of the landfill? How many times in the last few years of Isabel’s disappearance had Enid regretted getting rid of it! If only she had known how she would long to touch it again and hold it to her, as if the cloth could somehow magically restore to her what had been lost.
Blue, blue, blue …
From the kitchen window the sky is as blue as it was during her newborn baby’s first homecoming, her mischievous toddler’s beloved sleep suit, her adolescent daughter’s expressive eyes, and her troubled teenage daughter’s T-shirt, the one Isabel wore the last night Enid saw her. Could today really be Isabel’s 21st birthday? Where is she?
It was a gray damp overcast October afternoon the first year Enid and Lorene began what would become a yearly tradition: celebrating Isabel’s birthday in her absence. That first birthday lunch was approximately nine months after that terrible night; nine months of debilitating sadness, anger, hopelessness, and fear. The rift between Enid and Jim growing wider, too wide to ever bridge.
Lorene, knowing how difficult that first birthday without Isabel would be, had called Enid on the phone without success a few times earlier in the day. Her friend then came over to find Enid curled up in an overstuffed chair staring at a blank television screen, still dressed in the dirty charcoal-colored sweats she had worn to bed. When Enid wearily lifted her head from the curve where the chair’s arm met its back, her poof of hair was smashed down in one spot, not unlike misshaped cotton candy, hair obviously not shampooed for days.
“You look a fright,” said Lorene in a warm, compassionate tone, placing a tender hand upon her friend’s shoulder. “That’s to be expected. I think I have what the doctor ordered.”
She held out a white paper bag with the Red Dragon imprint and waved it in front of Enid. The tantalizing aroma of lemon chicken danced on bound feet before her nose, and in spite of her miserable mood, Enid sat up. It was late afternoon, and Enid had not eaten all day.
The next year, on what was Isabel’s 17th birthday and a little over a year and a half since Enid had last seen or spoken to her daughter, Lorene once again arrived with Chinese food. The two friends sat cross-legged on the living room floor and ate straight from the cartons. Lorene waited until Enid was feeling fat and, if not happy, more relaxed before she made the suggestion they hit their favorite thrift store haunts.
“Who knows, we might even find Tinkerbell among the prom dresses! Remember that gadawful hot pink ruffled organza nightmare she just had to have for a night of bowling?”
Enid laughed in spite of the tears threatening to spill over. Isabel had been 13 then, already headstrong and independent, hell bent on making a mark on their sleepy indifferent city.
During the next five years, Lorene was the only one who was comfortable with whatever it was that Enid was feeling, especially her “inability to move on.”
Jim moved on, or not moved on so much as careened like a wild silver pinball rushing from one brightly lit flipper to the next, each new girlfriend more trouble than the last. Not that Enid was unsympathetic to his situation. Of course he was trying to numb his pain. Their baby lost forever.
How can one cope? Life rushes forward, a moving river of change and disappointment, heartache and pain. Sometimes it is just too hard to fight it, too. An image of Tink mesmerized while watching the scene in the Wizard of Oz when the cowardly lion curls up in the field of poppies to sleep. So tired. So tired. Just let me sleep. How many times had Enid drifted to sleep in her own field of poppies, carrying Isabel’s image into the comfort of a dream world, hoping never to awaken?
Jim’s way was different. His way was one of constant motion, never allowing himself to stand still, letting a swiftly rushing river carry him forward when tired. Jim would cling to any little flimsy branch he could find — usually dressed in even flimsier lingerie — clawing in terror for a way out of the treacherous white waters and up to the riverbank. Jim thought he had moved on, had boasted of it, really, urging Enid to do the same. But she knew, Jim was just as stuck — maybe even more so — than she was. Neither one of them has moved on, really. How can they? Knowing that Isabel is out there, somewhere, lost and trying to find her way home. At least she had Lorene’s friendship to help her through her grief.
Why do you stay here? Others, including Jim, have asked her this question as one year flowed into the next and the next.
Why do you stay here? It certainly wasn’t a career. Enid had lost her job — a job she began to blame for taking too much time away from Isabel — and was still rebuilding that part of her life after working through a depression that had clamped down tighter than the leg restraints that had strapped Isabel to the hospital table when she was picked up on the 51-50, “danger to self and others,” three months before her cruel vanishing act.
Why do you stay here?
She might come home, she once whispered to Jim when he asked this question after they first separated, when they both thought somehow it was all a mistake and that eventually they would be back together. She might come home, her voice soft the way it once was when they were in bed talking about serious matters, or making love, or planning birthday or Christmas surprises for their daughter, trying to keep Isabel from overhearing.
He shook his head in dismay.
“It’s not going to happen,” he said, his words barely concealing his anger at her refusal to give up. “Why can’t you let it go? She’s dead to us! And I say if this is how she treats us after we had such a perfect life, then so be it. We can do all the things we talked about doing when we first married. We can travel, go anywhere we want.”
It was then Enid realized that her secret hope that she and Jim might find their way back together again would not happen. Although Jim also thought their separation was temporary, Enid was horrified to find that he could envision a future life for him and his wife without their daughter. How could he do this? Enid might be able to forgive him the women he slept with in the aftermath of grief, but realizing that he had given up their beautiful daughter for dead was something she could never forgive.
Enid grew to detest the people with their well-intentioned advice and overly solicitous concerns. These were the people who had known her when she was one of a family of three, who knew her as a wife and a mother, and who looked at her alternatively with pity or impatience that she could not pull herself together. It was easier with strangers, those who did not need to know who she was or her family’s sad story. Of those who had known Isabel, only Lorene seemed to understand Enid’s need to stay put, just in case.
Five years is a long time when the days stretch before you in deep loneliness. Five minutes could feel like five hours, or five days, or five weeks, or five months of first an empty hollow gray feeling that swallows you whole, somehow serving as a protection and an assault at the same time. Then came the crazy little deals you try to make with a god or a universe or a power you may or may not believe in, promising to do good works, be a better person, stop focusing on material, inconsequential things — and yes, for Enid, this meant doing penance for commenting on her daughter’s slovenly dress by not combing her own hair for days on end — anything to restore what has been lost. If only she’d been a better mother, a better wife, less focused on career. At other times, she would blame herself for not being more stern with Tink, not setting better limits, not being more skeptical and less trusting. Why had she made it so easy for Tink to fall in with the wrong crowd, fall in with Max and fall out of their lives forev — no! Jim was wrong — not forever. Never forever.
Why do you stay here?
Enid thinks of a visit she, Jim, and Isabel took the last “happy” summer, when Tinkerbell was 14 and Enid thought the change in her daughter’s appearance was a fashion phase and not the first indicator of her drug addiction. They’d taken a road trip up the Pacific Northwest Coast and stopped at a lighthouse near a place called Cape Foulweather in Oregon. Isabel, who had spent most of the road trip wearing the bored, sullen expression of an adolescent in captivity, had mostly refused to get out of the car at scenic points along the way. The lighthouse was different. Isabel seemed drawn to the 93-foot white brick tower, read the various signs posted, and listened intently to the cheerful middle-aged strawberry blond docent leading the tour.
It was the first time Isabel had ever seen an actual lighthouse, and she was fascinated with the idea that someone would live in isolation, sending out signals to guide ships to safety. As most of the tourists began following the guide back down from the tower, Isabel stopped to read out loud a framed document titled “Instructions and Directions to Light-House and Light Vessel Keepers, 1871.”
The Lighthouse shall be lighted and the lights exhibited for the benefit of mariners punctually at sunset daily. Every evening, half an hour before sunset, the keepers provided with a lighting lamp will ascent to the lantern of the tower and commence lighting the lamp, so that the light may have its full effect by the time twilight ends. Lighthouse lights are to be kept burning brightly, free from smoke during the entire night from sunset to sunrise. Lightkeepers are required to keep a careful watch and see that the lights under their care are kept properly trimmed throughout each night: and during thick stormy weather those keepers who have no assistants must watch the light during the entire night. …
Jim was impatient to get back on the road and log additional miles. “I’m leaving without you if you don’t hurry,” he said gruffly, beginning his loud descent down the circular staircase.
Enid felt torn between husband and daughter. She watched Jim go, knowing that if she and Isabel took too long he would make them pay through several unbearable miles. She turned to her daughter. Isabel stared out of the lighthouse to the endless expanse of sea, her small frame swimming in baggy flannel pants and an oversized black sweatshirt advertising some ugly band. Something in the way her daughter stood, the lonely line of her body almost curling inward, the wistful sadness in her daughter’s luminous eyes. She seemed so forlorn, part woman and part child, and Enid’s heart ached. She felt as if her daughter was adrift, as was she, and Jim, all three of them, adrift and at the mercy of a sea that appeared deceptively calm, each of them so close and so far apart that anything could happen.
Enid went and stood beside her daughter, touched her on the arm tentatively. “Sweetie, we should go. Your father —”
Isabel did not turn, but continued to stare out to sea. “I wish I could be a lighthouse keeper,” she said.
“Everyone needs something or someone to help show them the way,” said Enid, “but it must be an awfully lonely life.”
Isabel’s eyes filled with tears, and Enid did not know what to do or say.
“Isabel —” This was not the first time, although she had tried to deny it, that she knew something was terribly wrong in her daughter’s life. “Isabel —”
Her daughter turned then, her face once again the bored, disaffected, unreadable mask of the sullen young teen.
“Dad’s waiting,” she said. “Come on. We better get moving before he assholes up.”
Enid could not respond. It was the first ugly thing she had ever heard her daughter say. It would not be the last, but it would be the last family vacation the three of them would ever take together.
It is the image of her daughter, caught forever between child and woman, staring out at the unfeeling beauty of the sea, her inarticulate longings as wide and expansive, uncontainable. I wish I could be a lighthouse keeper. Oh Isabel, have I lost you forever? You are still your mother’s beacon in the darkest of nights.
Enid wipes away the tears and begins her preparations. Today, she will serve her dearest friend her daughter’s salad on her grandmother’s fine china, and they will have crabmelt sandwiches, another of Isabel’s favorite foods. Lorene, who moved north in the third year of Isabel’s absence, will drive five hours to visit. When she arrives, she will not complain once about the journey or how late the hour when she begins the drive back.
Lorene will ask Enid about school and express pride in her friend’s progress and the counseling degree that Enid expects to earn in May. It will go unspoken, but both women will think about how the books on the grieving process that Lorene had loaned Enid helped lead her back to school and to this new career path. The two friends will talk about volunteer work, books, recipes, and about Lorene’s new grandchildren, which is becoming easier for Enid to do with each passing year.
And if silence settles over the birthday luncheon like a funeral mantilla, Lorene will not feel compelled to rush it away or fill it with chatter. If tears slip unbidden from Enid’s eyes, a trickle of memories or the desire to find what might be lost forever, Lorene will not look away in embarrassment. She will wait, then reach over and take her dear friend’s hand, squeeze it, and say, “Let’s go thrift store shopping!”
The women will stack the dishes near the sink, feeling no compulsion to finish them first — not even rinse them — and then they will head out the door. Should the weather suddenly take a turn for the worse, and the blue, blue, blue October sky suddenly fill with dark storm clouds, they will still continue on, looking for Isabel among the thrift store racks, unafraid of what they might or might not find.
Why do you stay here?
After five years, Enid is finally beginning to feel as if she is rebuilding her life. At times it might still feel as flimsy as balsa wood and rubber bands, threatening to give way at a moment’s notice. At other times, she can close her eyes and picture the lighthouse operating once again, leading lost souls to safety. Peace flows through her. Although physically, Isabel might be miles away, yes, go ahead and say it, even dead, Enid feels her daughter’s presence with her: a flickering light of hope leading her mother back to love and forgiveness. In such moments, gratitude is possible.
Today, the sky is blue and Enid has the front door open, waiting for her dear friend Lorene’s arrival, which will be accompanied by laughter and acceptance, strength and continuity, and the light born of a friendship helping to buoy and steady her during the dark journeys of life.
Have I lost you, Isabel? Never.
Featured image: (Helen Hotson / Shutterstock)
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