We're excited to bring this novel by CatholicMom.com contributing author Sherry Boas to our readers, one chapter at a time. Each Sunday at 9 AM Pacific, a new chapter in Until Lily will be posted. We thank Sherry for her generosity in sharing this book here and encourage you to check out the other books in the Lily series.
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The Shadows of Windmills
I tried to raise the children the way Jen would have liked. There were things I would have eased up on if they were my children from the start. But if I thought it was something she would say no to, I usually said no. And I felt it a duty to take them to church occasionally. Terry would beg to go to Mass and I would break down every six or eight weeks and take them. Even though I had long ago lost my faith I didn’t see any reason why they should. But the biggest thing is I know Jen would have wanted them to go to church. I would always sit in the pew and feel guilty. “If you really exist, God, you made a big mistake. Jen should have been here with her children. I could have died relatively unnoticed. Jack would have grieved for a while, but he would have moved on and remarried. The store would have been sold to someone else who would have run it pretty much the way I did, minus a few too many clearance sales owing to my disdain for clutter. So what was the deal with her dying of cancer instead of me? And why am I sitting here in church, talking to a God I don’t believe in?” Well, what else should I be doing? I am at church, after all.
I know, when it came to religion, I was always somewhat of a puzzle to the children. Terry would ask me why I didn’t say the prayers at church. I told her I’d forgotten them. Twelve years later, Lily asked me the same thing. I told her the same thing. She saved up her money for six months and bought me a book of Christian Prayers for my birthday.
After a while, Terry stopped asking to go to Mass, but Lily never did. In addition to trying to do what would make my sister happy, I guess I was making somewhat of a Pascal’s Wager. If by chance the stories about Jesus are true, I didn’t want to be the one to stand between him and a child who wanted to be with him. When we were kids our Godfather, Uncle Billy, gave Jen and me a picture, which hung on the wall in our room until the day we packed up our deceased parents’ belongings. Jen asked me if I would mind if she kept it and, of course, I didn’t. It was a framed print of a throng of children gathered around a smiling Jesus, who is looking into one of the children’s eyes as he gently cradles her face in his hands. Below, it read, “Let the children come to me ... The kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.” Jen hung it in her hallway next to the portraits of her children. Before she died, she gave it to me and told me to take good care of it. I gave it to Lily for her room at the group home. The artist was able to convey a beautiful familiarity between the children and the man. When I was a kid, I would picture one of the little girls reaching up and playfully tugging on his whiskers. That would be Lily. If there is a Kingdom, Lily is most certainly a favored princess who could, not only get away with such antics, but actually make the King quite happy with her self- forgetting playfulness. The rest of us would be afraid of what he might do to us if we did more than curtsy.
Lily has always seemed so at home with spiritual things. When she was a kid even, she was so peaceful at Mass, resting her head in someone’s lap and stretching out on the pew if there was room. Every time I saw that, it would take me back to that moment when I decided the fate of my sister’s children, and I would get this sense of something like pride welling up. I don’t know, maybe not pride, but just a secure knowledge of having done the right thing by keeping them together. No matter the cost. And I don’t think the cost could have been any higher.
One day, after we had returned from a family vacation to the beach, Jack embarked upon a topic that I had been trying to avoid for more than a year.
“What are we doing, Bev?” he asked.
“What are we doing?” I said.
“Yeah, I mean, is there something I’m missing here?” The vein in his left temple popped out, like it always did when he got agitated. “Is this the way life is supposed to be?”
“Is what the way life is supposed to be?” I dreaded asking.
“Miserable. I mean, are we supposed to be miserable all the time?” He ran his hands through his hair. “I mean, I know we must have been happy at one time, but I can’t even tap into any of those feelings anymore. There’s nothing here in this house but a dangerously high level of stress.”
“That’s not true,” I yelled. I didn’t want to sound indignant or defensive, but he was launching into ridiculous exaggerations. There were times of stress, but that wasn’t the norm.
“What are you talking about? A dangerous amount of stress? You spend seven days with us, and you can’t handle the little inconveniences that come with raising a family.”
“I can’t handle it? Like you can?” His eyebrows jumped quickly and fell back in place.
“How would you know about dangerous amounts of stress?” I said. “You’re never home.”
“I’m never home because I’d rather be at the office working than in this mad house,” he flung his arm when he said it, like he was practicing his tennis backhand.
“Oh, yes, you’ve been at the office working.” I’d had my suspicions for a long time, but I hadn’t planned to outright accuse him. Not yet, anyway.
“Yes, I’ve been working,” he said angrily. “What else would I be doing?”
That was the end of that conversation. Neither one of us were ready to take it any further at the moment. So Jack went for a walk and I went to bed.
I remember reading an article one time about how the installation of windmills in a rural area was ripping families apart. A 48-year-old New York man had refused to talk to his father, who had signed an agreement with the wind company to allow them to put seven windmills on the family farm, in exchange for $46,000 a year. The son was so annoyed by the noise and strobe effect of the turbines, that he nursed a grudge against the 95-year-old father fit for publication by CNN. I thought it so ridiculous, I decided to google windmill trauma and found other communities dealing with the same troubles.
“Our whole family has been affected,” complained one woman. “My husband just went to the doctor because of his stomach. He hates those windmills. We have fights all the time about them. It’s terrible. Why did you put them so close to our new home and expect us to live a normal life. If it isn’t the shadows it’s the damn noise.”
Now I happen to know that these people’s lives were not blissful until the windmill invasion. The father and son no doubt have a long history of battling over one thing or another. The windmills just give them something fresh and new to bicker about. The stomach troubles are probably from eating too much ranch-dipped chicken fingers and you can’t tell me quarrelling with your husband is something new brought on by rotating blades. Solid families do not let the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of turbines or the flickering shadows of alternative energy blow them apart.
This is how I came to understand what happened with me and Jack. I always said it was the stress of raising the children that led to the breakup. But, really, how accurate is that? I lay there in the dark, my mind flying through the past three years, crash landing on a March morning. Lily had asked for a bagel for breakfast. The sign for bagel was the same as the sign for toast or any other kind of starch. It was the touching of her index finger to her thumb, other three fingers up, waving swiftly in the air. It was technically close to the true sign for French Fries – an “F” bounced twice, but it had come to represent, to Lily, anything that was not meat or vegetables. I proceeded to the kitchen and spread cream cheese on the bagel, trying to ignore the bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. The bagels that Jimmy and Terry had chosen from Einstein’s that week happened to be green in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. I knew this was going to be a problem and I should have turned back right then. But I was hoping to prove a point, once and for all, that not all things green are to be loathed. Knowing how much Lily loved bagels, this was going to be my chance. Immediately upon seeing it, she recoiled in horror as if I had just served her roaches on the half shell. “Eeeeew,” she screamed. I tried to convince her it tasted exactly the same as any normal bagel, but she would have nothing to do with it. I told her she wasn’t going to get anything else to eat until she at least tried a bite of it. As the words left my mouth, I regretted them. You don’t set up challenges like that with a child as stubborn as Lily, unless you are willing to devote an entire day to front-line combat. But once the gauntlet was thrown down, I couldn’t back down. It’s Parenting 101. You don’t make empty threats. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Lily kept screaming at me throughout the day for different food. I didn’t relent until 1:30, when Jack came home from golfing and shot me a look – half of disdain and half of confusion – not knowing, or not caring, that there was more at stake here than a piece of bread tinted a color not known to nature.
“Just give the child something she likes,” he said through clenched teeth. “What’s wrong with you? I wouldn’t eat that damned thing either.”
I said nothing and I made Lily a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. She sat there, shoveling it into her mouth, until she had eaten the whole thing. Meanwhile, my resentment ate at me.
When Jack came back from his walk, I pretended to be asleep. He plopped down on the bed, hard enough to wake me if I had been sleeping. There was something he needed to say, and it couldn’t wait until morning. He switched on the light to talk to my back.
“Bev?” His voice was low and stern.
“You’re giving up on us, aren’t you, Jack?” I said, without moving.
“There’s no 'us' anymore, Bev. There’s you. There’s me. There’s you and the kids. There’s me and the kids. But there’s no 'us.' There hasn’t been an 'us' for a very long time.”
I decided to make it easy for him. I didn’t even turn toward him. “So, you’ve fallen in love with someone else, and you and she are going to go off and live in first person plural together.”
Raising a child with special needs can act like cement or dynamite. We could have built something sturdy and strong, but instead it all blew up in our faces. We were good together as long as neither one of us needed to sacrifice, which we didn’t as long as we only had to please ourselves for all those many years. Anything that would force us to put someone else’s needs before our own would try us as human beings, including our role as spouses.
Jack was the one who did the cheating and the leaving, so he’s the one who gets the blame – on paper at least. But it wasn’t entirely his fault. I was so wrapped up in taking care of the kids, I wasn’t paying Jack much attention. But someone else was. The breakup of my marriage was another thing I secretly blamed my sister for. Her reckless decisions cost me my husband. I ended up a single parent when all I ever wanted to be was a childless wife.
When I think back over the timing of Jack’s departure, it is clear to me what had become clear to him in that 10-by-12-foot hotel room with wall-to-wall, dawn-to-dusk chaos. Let’s see, how difficult could his decision have been? On the one hand, there was us. One burned-out, irritable wife with menopausal hormone imbalance plus three argumentative, whiney, mopey, exhausted, elated, spastic children whose criteria for a good meal was anything that comes in a wrapper that you can wad up and use for target practice on your sibling’s butt. On the other hand, there was her. A peaceable, well-rested divorcee who had nothing to do in her spare time but accessorize her designer clothing, cook her lover’s favorite gourmet dishes, serve them up by candlelight and rub his neck by the fire he builds after dinner. I’m sure the decision became increasingly easy each time hotel management called our room to tell us fellow guests were complaining about the noise. It certainly wasn’t the sort of noise Jack and his lover would have been making in a hotel room.
It occurred to me as the children stood barefoot in the wet driveway, watching Jack’s brand-new red Mustang coast away through the drizzle, that any marriage might have crumbled as a result of the misfortune that had befallen Jack and me. And then, for unknown reasons, as the tail lights on Jack’s ridiculous emblem of virility rounded the corner out of sight, I thought of Lily’s father and wondered where he was, if he had married and if that marriage had weathered whatever catastrophe life might have sent it. I felt certain I knew the answer. Thanks to my compliance with my bull-headed sister’s deathbed coercion, that man had escaped the trials that had tested Jack and me and found our union wanting. And yet, I could not be happy for Lily’s father. He had not known Lily, and that is quite an unenviable position. Now his daughter, too, is in an unfortunate predicament. She has no one but a dying old lady, whom she will not have for much longer. To this day, I rue the promise I made to my sister. Could there be a loophole in a promise like that? Now would be the time to find one, if one does exist. For Lily’s sake, now would be the time.
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Copyright 2017 Sherry Boas
About the Author
Sherry Boas is author of the Lily Series, which has grown into a beloved collection of novels whose characters’ lives are unpredictably transformed by a woman with Down syndrome. The former newspaper reporter and special needs adoptive mother of four is also author of A Mother's Bouquet: Rosary Meditations for Moms, Billowtail, Victoria's Sparrows, Little Maximus Myers, Archangela's Horse, and Wing Tip. She runs Caritas Press from her home office in stolen moments between over-cooking the pasta and forgetting to dust the chandelier. Find her work at CaritasPress.org.