The waxy layer quickly melted off the wick, allowing a mild aroma to waft through the kitchen and into the front room while Mozart played softly in the background. That was one of the great things about open concept living…fewer walls to block scents and sounds.
Stella dropped the lighter into one of her tote bags and pulled out a stack of brochures. She placed them on the island and surveyed the kitchen. Too much stuff sitting out on the counter, she thought. Grabbing the toaster and blender, she stowed them inside a lower cabinet next to the mixing bowls. She left the stand mixer, coffeemaker and utensil crock where they were, but something else was needed on the counter to create a feeling of warmth. Stella unzipped her larger tote and pulled out a woven basket and a bag of rather convincing faux lemons and limes. Dumping the pretend fruit into the basket, she set it on the counter near the sink and stepped back to take it all in. Much better.
A quick visit to each of the other rooms in the house resulted in additional tweaks. Toss pillows fluffed, towels refolded, slippers stowed in the closet and dirty clothes spirited out of sight inside the washer. Once Stella was satisfied with the tidy reset, she went out to her car, opened the trunk and pulled out a lawn sign. After inserting it firmly into the ground with a single thrust – Stella had wicked upper body strength – she went back inside to wait.
As the sun slipped behind the neighboring rooftops, Stella pulled her car into the garage. Vacillating between whether to haul the tote bags into the house or leave them in the back seat, she chose the latter. Order was important to her, and everything had its place, but it had been a very long day. She was spent and wanted nothing more than to go inside and become one with the sofa. The bags could wait.
Stella kicked off her shoes, poured herself a generous glass of wine and nestled into one end of the couch. The open house had bustled with potential buyers and she intuitively knew multiple offers would be rolling in within the next 24 hours. This was one of those times when she marveled at her good fortune because things hadn’t always been easy. The man-child she married couldn’t handle fatherhood and flew the coop before their daughter’s first birthday, and being a single mom had been fraught with challenges. But Carla was the light of her life and Stella’s ultimate goal was to make sure she never questioned her mother’s love…whether that meant the best bike on the block, pj dancing before lights out, or the perfect destination wedding.
Stella worked hard to get her realtor’s license and, with a lot of late nights and determination, she managed to carve out a nice, comfortable life for daughter and herself. When Carla made Stella a grandmother, it was hard to imagine life getting any sweeter. Little Emily was a miniature version of Carla, and they gave Stella more joy than any human deserved.
Of course, when Stella found herself cheerfully basking in her own happiness, her mind would often conjure up her father…a man she hadn’t spoken to in over two decades. Dredging up the past was the one act of self-sabotage that no amount of introspection could conquer. Stella learned long ago that it was useless to try to distract herself, so she reluctantly allowed her thoughts to wander back in time.
The youngest of two children, Stella grew up a bit spoiled. Not necessarily in a bad way but, after a string of miscarriages, her mother was ecstatic when Stella entered the world and she absolutely doted on her. She gave plenty of attention to Stella’s brother, too, but he was several years older and spent most of his time playing sports and hanging out with his friends. As far as Stella’s father went, the car dealership he owned always took top priority. When it came to spending time with the family or attending any sort of school functions, Cyrus Buckingham was generally a no-show. That never really bothered Stella when she was growing up, though, because her real bond was with her mom. She was happiest when they were together…just the two of them.
When Stella was a freshman in high school, her brother quit college and joined in the Army. Stella remembered how upset their mother was over the prospect of her only son putting himself in danger as a soldier, but he seemed to thrive in the military. While the letters he sent home were few and far between, when he did write he sounded optimistic about his future…excited even. He said he was actually looking forward to returning to college after his enlistment ended.
That never happened. Shortly after Stella graduated high school, her parents were notified that her brother’s entire squad had been decimated during an air strike. It seemed as though the world as they knew it came to an abrupt halt that day. When Stella and her parents returned home from the funeral, her mother retreated to her bedroom and refused to communicate with anyone for weeks. Ultimately, she was admitted to the psychiatric unit at the local hospital and, three days later, a nurse found her dead in her bathroom. She’d ripped her hospital gown into long strips, braided them together and hung herself from the shower head.
At age 18, Stella suddenly found herself motherless, brotherless and, for all intents and purposes, fatherless. Her dad had never been one for conversation but, after this double tragedy, he threw himself even further into his work and Stella rarely saw him. Whenever they were together, she tried to get him to interact with her, but he wouldn’t engage with anything more than one or two-word answers. They became nothing more than strangers living in the same house so, after about a year, Stella took her small inheritance and moved to a studio apartment across town. She made sure her father knew how to contact her, but he never called.
Over the next few years, Stella attempted to stay in touch. On the rare occasions when her father actually agreed to meet up, his discomfort was palpable. He was all the family she had left, but he might as well have died with the rest of them because, even when he was there, he wasn’t really there. Eventually, he stopped accepting her invitations altogether. He missed her wedding and, when she called him after Carla was born, he congratulated her but never came to see the baby. For a while, Stella continued to do whatever she could to bridge the gap between the two of them, particularly after her marriage ended. She pleaded with him not to shut her out, but nothing she said seemed to make any difference. Stella never stopped hurting over the loss of her mother and brother, and the continuous rejection by her father became too much to bear. His apparent lack of interest broke her heart and her last conversation with him, one-sided as it was, ended in an eruption of all the pain and resentment she’d been harboring. Before she could stop herself, she was screaming at him, spewing horrible things she didn’t truly mean because she wanted to hurt him as much as he was hurting her. It wasn’t her proudest moment.
Stella later regretted all those things she’d said, but she never apologized. She never reached out to her father again at all. In an effort to protect herself, she cut all ties and directed her energy toward creating a life without him. Stella gradually found contentment, and she kept her hurt and disappointment about her father closed up in a little box in the back of her mind. Only occasionally did she find herself lifting the lid to peer inside…like today.
The old grandfather clock in the corner began to chime. Stella rubbed her hands over her face and let out a heavy sigh. She hated that residual sense of melancholy that always accompanied those trips down memory lane. Her wine glass was empty and, with the exception of those ten tubular tolls, the house was quiet. Stella got up and went into the kitchen to rinse her glass. Just as she was putting it in the dishwasher, her phone rang.
Stella hesitated to answer because she rarely got calls this late and didn’t recognize the number, but the chance that it might have something to do with Carla or Emily made her pick up. “Hello?”
“Stella?” The male voice on the other end sounded old and weary.
“Yes,” she said. “Who’s calling?”
“This is Daniel Peterson. You may not remember me.”
Stella’s brain went into file retrieval mode and she quickly realized the name was familiar. “Mr. Peterson? From the old neighborhood?”
“Yes, that’s right. It’s been a long time,” he said, his voice perking up a little.
She hadn’t thought about Daniel Peterson in ages and couldn’t fathom why he’d be calling. Unless, of course, it had something to do with her father. That was an unnerving thought and she said, “It’s nice to hear from you, Mr. Peterson, but it’s pretty late. What’s going on?”
After a slight pause, he said, “It’s about Cy…your dad, I mean. He’s in the hospital.”
Stella took a deep breath and held it a moment before quietly letting it out. “What happened?”
“Heart attack. We were taking a walk like we do every Sunday afternoon and he just collapsed. Up to that point, he seemed fine, but he was admitted several hours ago and is still unconscious. Since I’m not kin, they aren’t telling me much.”
The room began to close in on Stella and she started to sweat. Somewhere in her mind, she realized she should say something. She just couldn’t seem to form any words.
“Stella?” Mr. Peterson sounded a bit alarmed. “Are you still there?”
Stella leaned against the kitchen counter to steady herself. “Yes, sorry. You just caught me by surprise.” Without even thinking, she added, “I’m on my way.”
The pale man in the bed looked so very small. He lay motionless, wires running from under his gown to a monitor by the head of the bed. Stella moved from the doorway to the side of the bed and gently touched the back of his hand. The soft, wrinkled skin was dotted with little age spots and blue, crooked veins.
“Dad, it’s me. Stella.” Still no response. Feeling that old familiar stinging behind her eyes, she looked up at the ceiling as she tried not to cry. She felt she barely knew this man and was surprised by the rush of emotion.
She flinched and turned around to see an elderly man standing just outside the door. Glancing back at her father, Stella stepped away from the bed and left the room.
“Mr. Peterson, right?” She held her hand out.
Daniel shook it and said, “Guess I’ve changed a little since you saw me last. How old were you then? Twenty or so?”
“That sounds about right,” Stella smiled and followed Daniel to the small waiting room down the hall.
“How about a cup of coffee?” Daniel asked as he gestured to one of the brown vinyl chairs.
Stella shook her head as she sat down. “Thanks, but I’m jumpy enough as it is. Seeing Dad like that…so vulnerable…I don’t even know how to process it.”
Daniel took the chair across from her and leaned forward. “Listen, I know you and Cy haven’t been in touch lately, but…”
“Lately?” Stella interrupted with an uneasy laugh. “You can say it, Mr. Peterson. My father and I have been estranged for more years than I care to think about.”
Daniel’s face reddened a bit. “I’m really sorry, Stella. I don’t want to cause any more bad feelings than there already are. I just felt you have a right to know your dad is sick.”
Stella regarded this man who had been her father’s friend for as long as she could remember. He was alert, but the dark circles under his eyes and the rasp of his voice told her he was bone tired. She didn’t know if that was from all the events of the day, or life in general, but she was grateful that he’d reached out to her.
“Mr. Peterson, you have nothing to apologize for, and I’m very glad you called. Dad and I have our issues – no doubt about it – but, right now, that’s not important. The important thing is for him to recover.” Stella reached over and laid her hand on top of Daniel’s. “Have you been here ever since they brought him in?”
Daniel nodded and smiled. “He’s a pain in the ass, but he’s my best friend. I wasn’t about to just up and leave him here by himself.”
They sat in silence for a few moments and then Stella said, “Thank you for sticking around, but you really ought to go home and get some rest. I’ll check in at the nurse’s station to see what they can tell me, and then I’ll just kick back in Dad’s room for the night. Assuming they’ll let me, that is.”
Daniel didn’t move to get up. “Before I go, there’s something you need to know…about your dad.” He proceeded to tell Stella about all the times Cyrus had secretly checked in on her and her family over the past couple of decades. He told her how her dad would sit on a park bench day after day in the hopes of catching a glimpse of his granddaughter and great-granddaughter when Carla took Emily to playground. He told Stella her father even did that way back when she used to take young Carla to the park. When she asked how it was possible she never noticed him there, Daniel explained just how good Cyrus was at not drawing attention to himself. He didn’t want to be acknowledged. He just wanted to be nearby. Daniel even broke his friend’s confidence by telling her that Cyrus didn’t blame her for shutting him out of her life. He understood why she did it, and he accepted full blame.
After saying their goodbyes, Stella stood at the waiting room door and returned Daniel’s wave as he stepped onto the elevator. She stayed where she was, completely lost in thought, long after the doors slid closed.
Early the next morning, Stella awoke feeling stiff from sleeping in the chair next to her father’s bed. She rubbed her eyes and looked over at him, listening to his soft breathing as he slept. He was still so…still.
Stella stood up, arched her back until she heard a pop, and began to pace around the room. Remnants of a dream punched through her thoughts and she knitted the fragments together in her mind. She dreamed she was 8 or 9 and had just won 2nd place in the art competition at the 4-H Fair. Her entry was a watercolor of a grinning frog sitting on a purple lily pad. In the dream, the fairground morphed into her father’s office at the dealership, and she saw her painting hanging on the wall behind his desk. Her dad was in his chair, smiling and pointing at the picture, clearly proud of her accomplishment. The more Stella pondered the dream, the more certain she was that it wasn’t a dream at all. It was a true memory. One she had tucked away and replaced with mental reenactments of all the times her father had disappointed her. Who knew how many other good memories might be hiding back there? She absently wiped a tear from her cheek as she started out of the room and nearly bumped into Daniel when he walked up with a cup of coffee in each hand.
“Mr. Peterson!” Stella stopped short. “Sorry. I almost ran you down. What brings you back here so early?”
“Please, call me Daniel.” He grinned, looking a hundred times better than he had the night before. “When you get to be my age, sleep abandons you a lot earlier than you’d like.” Daniel offered Stella one of the cups and nodded his head toward Cyrus’s room. “So, how’s he doing today?”
“There doesn’t seem to be any change. I was just getting ready to find the doctor to see what the prognosis is. Thanks for this,” she said as she accepted the cup of coffee and breathed in the aroma. Stella tried to meet Daniel’s smile, but couldn’t quite manage it.
Stepping around her, Daniel started through the door to her father’s room. “I’ll sit with him while you look for the doctor. Might even talk to him. Listening to me ramble on might be just enough to wake the old fart. If for nothing else than to tell me to shut the hell up.”
This time Stella did smile. She liked this man.
After a brief consultation with Cyrus’s doctor, Stella returned and found Daniel waving his arms around while regaling her father with some story from their younger days. She coughed lightly and Daniel turned around and laughed. “You caught me!”
“I did at that. That must have been some tale you were telling.” She walked around the bed and sat in the other chair. “I appreciate you staying with him while I was gone.”
Daniel regarded her father and said, “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” Looking back at her, he asked, “Were you able to talk to the doc?”
Stella nodded. “I was. He’ll be in shortly but wanted to assure me that it isn’t all that uncommon for a patient not to wake up right away after a heart attack. And, fortunately, the episode itself wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. He said if Dad hadn’t made it to the hospital when he did, it might have been fatal.” Stella shook her head and sighed. “Daniel, you may have saved my dad’s life. I’ll never be able to thank you enough for that.”
“Aw, shoot, Stella. He’d have done the same for me.” Daniel sniffed and looked back at his friend. Just as he was about to say something else, he heard a groan.
Stella was up in an instant. “Dad? Dad, can you hear me?” She leaned over the bed and took hold of one of Cyrus’s hands. “You don’t need to talk, just nod if you hear me.”
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Cyrus nodded. One eye opened, then the other and, as he seemed to focus on the figure in front of him, his eyes grew wide. “Stella,” he whispered.
“Shhh…you need to save your strength.” Looking at Daniel she asked, “Would you mind finding the doctor and letting him know Dad’s awake?”
Without a word, Daniel was up and out the door. Stella looked back at her father and saw that he was still staring at her.
“Is it…is it really you?” His voice was low and shaky, but his words were clear.
Stella swallowed the lump in her throat and simply nodded. Having her father awake and talking brought forth so many emotions, she didn’t trust herself to speak. But she smiled. A big, genuine smile just for him. That was something she couldn’t recall ever doing before. And then something happened that caused her heart to burst into a thousand happy pieces.
He smiled back.