My mother is dying. She has leukemia and she came here to die."
Nathan and his adorable little sister just moved in across the street from Liz Scattergood, and both of them could use a friend. Liz just isn't sure she's the right person. What do you say to someone whose mother is dying?
Liz has been coping with tough questions like this all summer. Ever since Liz's grandmother Bunny died, Liz's mother hasn't been the same; she's even started attending a spiritualist church that claims it can contact Bunny on the Other Side. Liz isn't sure she believes it, but she does know the service gives her mother comfort something no one else can seem to do at all.
As Liz and Nathan become closer, and the summer draws nearer to its bitter end, questions of faith, mortality, and spirituality come to the forefront of their intimate friendship. There are no easy answers, but together they may nonetheless find hope, comfort, and love.
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By Ellen Wittlinger
Simon & Schuster Children's PublishingCopyright © 2006 Ellen Wittlinger
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The funeral was almost over. Mom and I had both gotten up from our front-row folding chairs to place single red roses on the casket as it hovered over the excavated hole in the earth. After days of thinking about nothing but this, I was grateful to finally feel a little numb. I flopped back down onto the chair next to my dad and stared at the granite headstone, which, along with my grandfather's name, Joseph McCoy, would soon be inscribed with my grandmother's: Elizabeth Kimball McCoy.
Really, it ought to just say "Bunny" on the headstone -- that's what everybody called her. Even me. Elizabeth Kimball McCoy sounded like a woman who invited people over for tea and crossed her stockinged legs at the ankles. Bunny was black coffee to go -- a jeans-and-sneakers kind of person. But if there was an opening at her gallery, she'd tie a silk scarf around her neck and wear earrings that dangled to her shoulders. Bunny was a person you noticed.
I'd just realized that my mother was still standing up, staring at her tossed rose, when she suddenly launched herself onto the casket, her arms outstretched to embrace the big silver bullet. A moaning sound turned within seconds to wailing.
"Oh, my God, I can't stand it! Don't leave me,Bunny! You can't leave me!" she screamed. The wind was blowing up the skirt of her hurriedly purchased, badly fitting black dress so that the backs of her pale thighs gleamed in the sun. I closed my eyes and pretended I was invisible.
Dad was on his feet immediately, grabbing her around the waist, pulling her off the casket lid.
"No, no! Don't take her away!" Mom yelled, sobbing, hitting at Dad's arm as if he were responsible for Bunny's burial. "I'm not ready!"
Dad stood there, holding her tightly until she slumped against him and the sobbing turned back into regular crying. That's the kind of thing he's good at -- being there when you need him. He might not always know the right thing to say, but he's there.
I felt a single tear trickle down my cheek and calmly brushed it away. I was tired of crying. I wanted this funeral to be over already so we could all go home and try to figure out how to be normal people again, if that was possible.
I could hear mumbling behind me, and I turned halfway around in my seat to look at the other so-called mourners. There were people I didn't even recognize staring at Mom as if she had a third eye. Roxanne and her mother were in the back of the crowd, and they were looking at Mom too. Everybody seemed sort of embarrassed, which made me mad, even though I was totally humiliated myself. What did they expect? Didn't they understand how different everything was now? That nobody could ever take Bunny's place?
People always said how unusual it was that Mom and Bunny were so close, more like sisters or best friends than mother and daughter. Christine and Bunny are so lucky, they'd say. I wish I had such a wonderful relationship with my mother! Which always made me feel a little strange -- like, how come I wasn't part of this chain of mother-daughter best friends too? But I just wasn't. Oh, Bunny loved me, that I knew for sure, but my mother -- well, she was certainly not my best friend. Sometimes she didn't even act like my mother, at least not like most mothers. No How was school today? or Let's go shopping together. Bunny was the one who supplied me with that stuff. Dad always said Mom had her mind on other things because she was an artist. She was supposedly thinking all the time. Not about me, though. I guess Mom named me after her mother so I'd be like her, but I'm not. I'm just Liz. Nobody is like Bunny. Or rather, nobody was.
A few years ago Bunny took me shopping for back-to-school clothes at the end of the summer. We were at the mall in Waverly, and we kept running into girls I knew who were shopping with their mothers. I guess Bunny realized I was starting to feel kind of weird about that. We went to a restaurant for lunch and she ordered us both chocolate shakes.
"You know your mother loves you very much," Bunny said as I slurped my ice cream.
Did I know that? I wasn't sure.
Bunny sighed. "Perhaps it's my fault. After Joe died -- your grandpa -- Christine was so upset. She was only ten years old and I felt so sorry for her. I stood on my head to make her smile again. Gave her everything she wanted and more. Told her how special she was, day and night. I'm afraid it's made her a bit...self-centered."
I was in the kind of mood to think, Why'd she even have a kid, then?
Bunny always seemed to know what was on my mind. "When your mother was young, she always said she didn't want to marry and have children. All she wanted to do was throw pots. She was so focused on her art, she hardly had any friends. I dragged her to the concert where she met your father, and then I had to convince her she should take the time to get to know him.
"It opened her up, marrying your dad and having you, Elizabeth. She became part of a larger world, and I was so glad to see the change in her. But Christine is who she is," Bunny said, sighing. "Her passion is still there, the desire to lock herself away in her studio and ignore the rest of the world."
"Except for you," I said. "She lets you in."
Bunny reached across the table and took one of my hands in both of hers. "Oh, my darling girl," she said a little sadly. There was nothing else to say.
I'm not exaggerating when I say Bunny knew everybody in the Valley and they all liked her. So many people showed up at the wake at the Waverly Presbyterian Church that there wasn't room for all of them in the chapel and some had to sit on folding chairs in the rec hall next door. Artists from all over the Valley were there, and professors from the college, even a few people who'd known Bunny for all of her sixty-four years. All of them saying how shocked they were that Bunny, of all people, could have been so suddenly betrayed by her heart. I knew what they meant. Bunny had seemed too alive to die.
At first I was scared to look at Bunny lying in the coffin -- I'd seen dead animals before but never a dead person -- but once I got up the nerve to look, I was more amazed than freaked out. It looked just like Bunny, her long lashes lying against pink cheeks, her favorite rusty-brown lipstick carefully painted on her lips, her trimmed and polished fingernails resting on her chest, her turquoise scarf tied around her neck, one of its ends tucked beneath her long fluffy white hair.
Someone standing behind me said, "It looks like she's just asleep, doesn't it?" And then I realized what was so strange. I'd never seen Bunny asleep, never even seen her sitting quietly. Bunny had always been in motion: talking, pacing, driving, planning, working, on her way from one thing to another. Neither her lips nor her eyes were ever closed, and her hands were constantly busy helping to describe whatever it was she was talking about. Or they were pounding out jazz tunes on her big old piano. This wasn't Bunny lying here, it was only her left-behind body dressed up to look like her. In which case, where was she? How could it happen that the part of Bunny that was really her could just disappear?
The minister said a last prayer and finally people began to move away from the grave site toward their cars. Mom had gotten herself under control and was weeping quietly into the arm of Dad's jacket. Roxanne waved to me as she and her mother turned to go, and I raised my hand just a little to wave back. It seemed wrong even to wave, to do anything normal. Was everything going to be weird like this forever?
I stood next to Dad, wishing we were already back in the black limo, hidden away, but people were gathering around us again -- friends, neighbors, teachers from the school where Dad was the principal, people I didn't even recognize -- all saying the same things they'd been saying for days. No wonder Mom started screaming back there. I might have to scream myself if one more stranger pressed her squashy cheek into my face, saying, sorry, sorry, sorry.
Mom's friends Eva and Rosemarie kissed her quickly and said they were headed over to our house to put out food for anyone who came by after the service. Then several of Bunny's old friends came up and smothered us all in perfumed hugs, holding Mom the longest.
"She's in your heart, love. You'll never lose her," Claire said, patting Mom's hand. Which just made her cry harder.
"You call me if you need anything, dear. Understand?" said Lucille. Mom nodded, but I knew she'd never call Lucille, who some days couldn't even remember the names of her own cats.
I was shocked to see Mrs. Crosby, our neighbor from the ramshackle house across the road, waiting to talk to us. I halfway expected her to start complaining that our dogs had been in her yard again -- we almost never spoke to her except when she yelled over from her front porch about keeping Pete and Woody out of her bedraggled flower beds. Roxanne and I had called her Mrs. Crabby since we were little. But now here she was pumping Dad's hand up and down and looking Mom right in the eye.
"Too bad about your mother dying. Death is hard, no two ways around it. If you'd like me to bring you over a cake, I'd certainly do that. I'm asking because I know sometimes you get too much of that junk after a funeral and half of it goes right down the garbage disposal."
Her little speech was at least successful in drying up Mom's tears. "Oh, well, thank you, Mrs. Crosby, for offering. You're right, several people have brought food by in the past few days. Please don't go to any trouble -- we're being well taken care of."
Mrs. Crosby nodded. "Well, that's why I asked first. No sense wasting my time and ingredients. If you need anything, you know where to find me." She turned her back and walked off stiffly.
"God, she's weird," I said.
"Now, Lizzie," Dad said. "It was kind of her to make the offer."
I snorted as we began walking back to the car. "I'm glad we didn't have to waste her ingredients," I said, but quietly enough that Mom and Dad didn't hear.
A woman had been kind of hovering in the background while we talked to everybody else, but as we got near the car, she came up to us. She was older than Mom but not as old as Bunny, and she wore one of those long tie-dyed dresses you could get at the store in Waverly that Mom called "the shop for aging hippies." On her arms she wore about a hundred thin bracelets, which made a tinny noise when she moved. Her frizzy gray and brown hair was tied back carelessly with a string of yarn.
"You don't know me," she said. "My name is Monica Winters and I was one of Bunny's biggest fans. I live out in Bishop's Hill. Bunny gave me an exhibit in her gallery a few months ago -- I'm a printmaker -- and she's been visiting me regularly all year. I just wanted to say, she was a wonderful woman. You're very lucky to be her daughter."
Mom was wiping her face with one of Dad's already sopping-wet handkerchiefs. She handed it absentmindedly to me, and I gave the thing back to him. Mom just stared at the woman as though she were too exhausted to make sense of her words.
"Thank you," Dad said finally, speaking for her. "We appreciate that." We started to walk away, but this Monica person stepped in front of Mom again.
"And...I just wanted to say that if you ever want to try to get in touch with Bunny...well, I belong to the Spiritualist Church up at Singing Creek.... I don't know if you're familiar with it, but we...our preachers are mediums and they could try to contact her for you. I'm not trying to be pushy or anything, but..."
Mediums? Like at a seance? What was she talking about?
"Thank you," Dad said again, this time more forcefully. "I think we need to be getting home now."
"Of course," Monica said, stepping aside. "I just wanted to let you know about it. Bunny was such a strong person in life, I just know she'd want to reach out to you from the Other Side!"
Mom and I kept looking at Monica as Dad hustled us into the waiting car. Mom had stopped crying. I kind of wished I could ask Monica a few questions. Like, do you really believe you can talk to dead people?
Obviously Mom was wondering the same thing. "Do you think they could really contact Bunny?" she asked Dad.
"There's a church where they do that?" I said.
Dad shook his head. "She's some kind of a kook, that's all. This is the first time I've heard of a religious nut trying to recruit people at a funeral." He settled himself next to me and pulled the door closed.
As the driver began the slow circle out of the cemetery, I looked back again. Monica was sitting down on one of the folding chairs next to Bunny's grave. She seemed to be talking to someone, except there was no one else there.
Copyright 2006 by Ellen Wittlinger
Excerpted from Blind Faith by Ellen Wittlinger Copyright © 2006 by Ellen Wittlinger. Excerpted by permission.
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