She mounted the stairs to her brother’s room, breath clattering in her ribs. Gripping the prescription bottle, the weight of her parents’ expectation stooped her ten-year-old shoulders. Sophie was the only person Frankie would sometimes let in, and he needed to take his medicine.
He was in his usual position in the rocker, knees drawn up, hands covering his ears.
“Hi Frankie. You need to take your medicine.”
The frenzied rocking began. “Nooooooooo…”
Men in white coats brought Frankie down for their Sunday visit. The day’s periwinkle sky and laundry-fresh breeze belied the dim, Lysol-scented lobby. They picnicked on bologna sandwiches and orange soda, appetites squelched. “Daddy, please! Don’t send me back there…they scream all night and pee in their beds.”
Inside the wood-paneled Ford, air thick with tobacco and despair, Sophie longed for the lives blurring past. Her blouse, damp with Frankie’s green-eyed tears, fed the rising nausea. Until it sprouted arms and pinned her to the tan, cracked vinyl, held her captive to the tremble of her father’s shoulders. And the way her mother patted his thigh, as if the screams and stench of urine could be splashed away with Jean Nate.
Forty Years Later
“Hi Aunt Sophie.”
She heard the catch in her niece’s voice. Despite her estrangement from Frankie, Sophie was like a second mother to his daughter. “Hey, sweetie. What’s wrong?”
Jeannie broke down. “Dad’s got cancer. It’s in his esophagus. They say he doesn’t have long to live. Mom says it’s from the Lord. That He’s breaking Dad down, that it’s the only way he’ll come to Him. But I just can’t believe it! If God’s as good as Mom says, how could He let Dad die?”
The question hung like spun glass as Sophie’s wavering faith stood between them, gloating.
“I don’t know, honey. All I know is your Mom’s faith has held her up all these years.”
“Will you come, Aunt Sophie? Please?”
She spoke into his answering machine, breath clattering in her ribs. “Hi Frankie, it’s me. I know you’re sick and I wanted to know if I could come see…”
He picked up. “NO, SOPHIE! Why would I want to see someone who has ruined my life?”
Though all of Frankie’s relationships were contentious, his illness had bulls-eyed her heart. “I just wanted to tell you that I love you.”
“Okay! You told me!” Click.
She sat down, closed her eyes. Behind them, as if sharing intimacies with a stranger, she prayed. “God, please. Just let him know that I love him, that all I ever did was love him.” As if in response, grainy memories filtered in - those precious times her brother’s demons were held at bay. She smelled grass on the wind as he rode her on the handlebars of his bicycle. She felt her socks catch on the plywood floor as she taught him to dance to the Bristol Stomp. She heard the Young Rascals sing, “It’s a Beautiful Morning” as he installed the eight-track cassette in her first car. And as if a gentle hand was placed on the small of her back, she felt prodded to go.
Frankie’s burly, six-foot frame loomed over the shrunken man perched on the edge of the bed. He’d been quarantined with an undiagnosed infection, so she had to wear a mask. He began the familiar, dreaded way, squeaking oxygen-fed accusations beneath his. Suffocating with loss, Sophie muffled, “Frankie, I love you. I’ve always loved you.”
He quieted and stared at her, wide-eyed, like a child. And magnified behind the lenses of his glasses, she witnessed the demons drown in the blue-green Mediterranean of his eyes. In a moment that would remain in the present tense, he said, “I love you, too, Sophie. I’ve always loved you. I’m sorry I hurt you.” He held out bony arms. And as she fell into them, the grainy memories exploded in bittersweet, 3-D Technicolor.
Over the next week, they rebuilt the nests in each other’s hearts. Then, the day before he died, Frankie’s wife had her pastor visit. When Frankie accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, his wife fell to her knees, sobbing.
“Oh, Aunt Sophie, Mom was right!” Jeannie flew to her mother.
Astonished, Sophie managed, “Yes, I guess she was.” And a newfound determination filled her. She would seek the God who had answered her prayer. And who had stretched the light of one week over a canyon of years.
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