Scroll to archive below and click on December to find Part I of the story, "What You Need Most."
What You Need Most
"Dad, I understand you want to hang onto Mom's jewelry," Shannon said. "Maybe even some of her personal things like her apron. But this is, well, just silly." His eldest daughter stood in the bathroom doorway and held up her mother's toothbrush.
"You're right, dear," he said, lifting Elaine's old gardening Crocs out of the waste can and placing them inside his closet.
Shannon dropped the toothbrush into the kitchen trash bag looped over her wrist. The toothbrush fell to the bottom, barely causing a ripple.
"Well, there. We've finally made some progress." Shannon peered into the nearly empty bag, but when she looked up into his face, she dropped the bag and wrapped her arms around him. "I know this is hard, Dad. It's hard for me, too. But it's been five months."
"Five months, one week, and three days." He backed out of Shannon's hug and forced a smile.
Marshall wondered if she had been designated by her two sisters for this duty because she lived the closest, or because she was the least sentimental.
Downstairs, a high-pitched whine grew louder and more insistent.
"What's wrong with Buster?" Shannon asked.
"Arthritis. He can't manage the stairs anymore. I got him that orthopedic bed in the living room, but he doesn't like being left alone." Marshall shrugged.
Neither did he.
Shannon nodded. "How about we start small and just tackle Mom's dresser for now?" she said a little too brightly. "We can make two piles. You choose what to keep and what goes to Goodwill. Okay?"
""Okay," Marshall said, though it didn't feel okay at all.
A half hour later, they'd sorted through three drawers in the highboy. Marshall was surprised to see that the Goodwill pile towered over the to-keep pile. Maybe he was beginning to heal.
"Two more to go." Shannon pulled open the next-to-the-bottom drawer. It was crammed full of Christmas presents decorated in brightly colored papers and ribbons, each with an envelope taped beneath the bow. She slammed the drawer shut and glanced at her father. "Sorry, Dad." When she eased the drawer open again, they both peered inside.
Marshall's mouth went dry. "Your mother always bought extra Christmas presents."
"I don't think these are extras. They've got cards on them with names on the cards. She must have sat wrapping these all the while knowing..." Shannon's voice squeaked. Marshall hugged her and she buried her face against his chest. He rubbed her back until the hiccupping sobs stopped.
Shannon disengaged herself. She swiped her cheeks, then handed him the large package on top.
All day Marshall had mustered a tight command on his emotions, tamping them down whenever they bubbled up too close to the surface. But one glimpse at his name written in Elaine's familiar loopy handwriting, and a raw ache flooded through him.
"I have to go check on Buster," he croaked and stumbled down to the garage. As he squeezed the large box under his arm, the silver wrapping paper blurred until it looked like he was carrying a ball of light.
Marshall set the package down on his workbench and blinked hard until his vision cleared. Behind him, Buster's toenails clicked across the kitchen tile and through the open door into the garage.
"It'll be okay, buddy." Marshall slid a thick finger under the cellophane tape, and the envelope slid loose. On the cover of the card stood a snowman and snowwoman in matching scarves sharing a milkshake under a starry sky. His hands shook as he took out a folded sheet of paper. He unfolded it, struck again by the familiar handwriting.
My Darling Marshall,
The next time I go to the hospital, I know I will be leaving for the last time. Please don't grieve too hard. I've had a wonderful life with you and the girls. While it saddens me to think I won't see our grandchildren grow up, I know you will tell them how much I loved them.
If I'm not home for Christmas, I suspect it will have long passed before you - or more likely Shannon - find these gifts.
Once I'm gone, I worry that you will cocoon yourself in this house with no one for company except Buster.
The words blurred, so he set the letter down and ripped the silver paper off the box. He removed the top of the box and pushed aside a layer of green tissue paper, revealing a manila file folder on top of something bulky, woolen, and bright red. Elaine knew he never wore red - with his round beer gut he'd feel like an over-ripe tomato. He exhaled, an uneasy disappointment settling over him. He realized he'd been hoping Elaine had left him some magical gift that would ease the pain and loneliness. Instead, she'd given him red pajamas.
He pulled a glossy brochure from the folder. On the front, a man dressed as Santa Claus smiled. He sat on a gold throne and a little girl, her head haloed with ringlets, perched on his lap. SANTA SCHOOL was written in bold letters across the top, followed by: "Santa Claus is coming to town, and that Jolly Old Elf could be you!"
What in the world? Marshall shook out the woolly bundle, and it unfolded into a big red coat cuffed with white fur and matching pants. A stocking cap fell to the floor. Buster sniffed the holly sprig on the fuzzy brim. Marshall picked it up by the pom-pom and tossed it back in the box before pulling out another paper from the folder. He squinted at the small type, a prepaid registration receipt and course syllabus.
"Putting the Ho! into Ho! Ho! Ho!" he read aloud. Then he turned to Buster, "Why would she think I'd want this?"
Buster nuzzled his hand in reply, and Marshall scanned further down the page. The course started in November, ending with a practical final exam during Thanksgiving weekend at the Remington Plaza Mall. Two weeks before the anniversary of Elaine's....
He slammed everything back into the box and mentally noted the deadline for a full refund. October first.
When Sophie found them, Marshall was raking leaves in the backyard while Buster lay on the grass, bathing in the late morning sun. She carried two mugs, steam swirling around her gloved hands.
"Coffee, black," she said and handed one of the mugs to her father.
Marshall leaned the rake against the trunk of a maple tree. "There's a nip in the air."
Sophie sipped from her mug. "Dad, can I help you sort Mom's stuff while I'm here?"
"Naw. I'm getting to it. Besides, you're a worse packrat than I am."
Sophie laughed. "Come on, birthday boy. I've got a surprise for you." She took his hand and led him to the driveway. Buster padded behind. With a push of a button and a squeal of metal, the garage door rose revealing two patio chairs in the empty car bay next to his Ford Explorer. Buster trotted over and sniffed them.
"So what are these?" Marshall asked.
Sophie beamed. "Shannon, Sarah, and I chipped in together."
"Thanks." Marshall said, putting his arm around Sophie.
No webbing, he noticed. A single sheet of canvas-like material was tied to an aluminum frame that was bent into a sitting position. "Are they rockers?"
"They're zero-gravity chairs." Sophie nudged him. "Try one."
"I don't have anything against a little gravity. Keeps you grounded," Marshall said. "Does it recline?" He plopped down in the seat, then gasped as his feet swung out from under him, and he fell backwards. Buster started barking frantically as the chair swung to and fro.
"Sorry, Daddy!" Sophie grabbed his arms, slowing the swaying chair until it came to a stop. "I forgot to set the lock."
Marshall lay panting, still reclined with his feet higher than his head, the chair rocking slightly. He startled when something warm and wet squished in his ear. "I'm okay, Buster." The dog lay down next to him but continued a low growl at the chair.
Sophie dropped into the other chair, and it oscillated gently until she too rested in a semi-reclined position. "See, it automatically finds the perfect position based on your body frame. Good for your back and your heart. It helps relieve tension."
Marshall laughed and patted is chest. "I'm going to need it. He couldn't shake the feeling that the chair was about to pitch him on his head.
Sophie smiled at him. "You'll get used to it. Now you can get rid of that ratty old one."
"But I just put new webbing on it. It's like new."
"I can take the chairs back - "
"No. Like you said. It'll just take a little getting use to." He couldn't tell her that sitting in the zero-gravity chair gave him the same sense of imbalance that he'd felt after Elaine died.
I hope you are enjoying reading Tracy's special story. Next section will be posted next Tuesday, December 9. Mahala
Order Christmas Is A Season! 2009 edited by Linda Busby-Parker on Amazon.