Ellee Bell has slumped down with her head in my lap. Asleep. Her shoulders and back and legs are buried under blankets. I can’t remember what brought us into the closet anymore or how long we’ve stayed. I only know that it’s time to go back out and try living again. I’m not sure how to coax her out so I start by letting just a little pencil of light in, just enough to gently illuminate the side of her face. From the one closed eye visible from my lap, can see the tear tracks spreading down around her cheek bone and through the soft valley between the nose and upper lip. Matted curls of hair stick to the skin around her ear and jaw. I pry the hairs away and loop them behind her ear. Then I begin to pet through her hair and slide the back of my hand like a feather across her cheek. Her breath is calm, her mouth drooping open like a loose slip knot. My love for this life has surprized me. Her existence and fierce need is nothing I would ever have thought to wish for.
After a few thoughtful moments, and without really thinking, I begin to sing John Denver’s song “Sunshine on My shoulder.” Half way into the song I feel my little Bell squirm a little, sniffle, rub her eyes open any make a small yawn.
” What are you singing,” she asks, her voice dry from sleep.
“It’s the song my mom sang to me when I was a baby.”
“You remember being a baby?” She rolls onto her back with her head still in my lap.
” No,” I say, cleaning the hair from the other side of her face. “My mom told me about it. But it feels like my memory now. I can see her at the kitchen window holding me over her shoulder and singing and rocking.”
“You see it really, or just pretend?”
“I suppose I pretend. But memories are a kind of pretending. Some you experience yourself, and some are given to you as stories. But they are all pretending.”
“Does that mean they aren’t real anymore? When something is a memory, I mean.”
“No. No. Our imaginations give our lives meaning, and without meaning nothing exists.”
“Is that something I’m supposed to understand when I’m older?”
I kiss the tip of her nose and start singing again from the beginning. For a while after I finish, neither of us know what to say. Finally, just as I’m about to say something, little Bell says “I think grandma must have loved you a lot.”
“Yes. She was very happy when I was born.”
“Well, I grew up I guess. Eventually I gave up things grandma thought I would always keep and love. I changed. I changed even more than I expected to change.”
“But you’re done changing now, right?”
“No. Everything always changes.”
“I don’t want you change.”
“I know. It’s hard when people change. You have to get to know them all over again. It takes patience and a lot of time.”
“Is that why grandma calls you a different name? Because she’s still getting to know you?”
“I think so. Maybe. But I know she loves me. And she adores you, my little Ellee Bell,” and with that I pull down on her ear lobe and make a faint dong sound. She giggles, then looks up, suddenly serious.
“But if she’s still getting to know you, she can’t love you like before, can she?”
” Only grandma can answer that.”
She turns onto her side again and looks away. “I don’t believe her.”
“She calls you my dad. How can she love you like before if she thinks your a dad?”
“It is confusing. Does it upset you?”
She sits up quickly and glares at me. “Doesn’t it upset you?”
“Yeah. I suppose it does.”
“I don’t even know who she’s talking about.”
I can’t help smiling. ” She’s talking to you. She can hardly stop talking to you. You’re so adorable, I think she forgets I’m even there.”
She rolls her eyes at me (for the first time from what I can remember) and falls back against the pillows in total aggravation and bafflement. “Don’t even … Mom, you’ve seen the pictures she likes to show me.” Her face struts out like a hen getting ready to peck at a fox. “Always that dorky boy.”
“Yes I know, I’ve seen them.”
” Well (it’s amazing how much indignation one word can carry) Well, then what’s she showing me that goofy boy for?”
“Because that’s you.”
Her eyes and nose flare. Her teeth grind. I’m about to try explaining further, but her expression suddenly softens and becomes distant, as if she’s traveling back and forth in time. I stay quiet and wait. I’ve learned to trust her intelligence and instincts.
When I see that her mind has returned to the present, I count to three, and when she still hasn’t spoken, I take my hand and turn her face to mine. “Do you understand now?”
She nods. Slowly and only half convincing. “I mean I get it. But I don’t get it. Is that stupid?”
“Not at all. I feel exactly the same.”
“What do we do now?”
“I don’t know. I was thinking about going for a Strawberry smoothie at Perk’s.”
“Can I have coffee this time?”
“I’ll let you taste mine. How’s that sound?”
“I guess. Okay.” She doesn’t move.
I begin to wonder if this was all too much for her to take in…. Of course it’s too much.
“Do you want to stay in the closet a little longer.”
Her body tips into my arm and her head comes to rest against my shoulder. She doesn’t respond or move for several minutes. Eventually she sits up straight, reaches to open the closet door, pauses, and says in the most serious tone, “I’m gonna need to hear more stories about that planet you say we’re from.”
“That won’t be a problem. But we got to get our butts out of this closet first.”