Joseph Jones plopped down in the chair near the fireplace. JJ, his friends called him, and he was exhausted after a full day of people and celebration. He was finally able to sit with a glass of wine in his hand to wind down as he stared over at the urn where his dead wife sat atop the mantle. She was quiet now, her lovely voice stricken from his world forever. A second glass of wine sat next to the urn, so he might share a glass with her again, as was custom on every holiday they celebrated.
A solitary tear fell from his eye, and he didn’t bother to wipe it away. It had been 5 years come tomorrow at 7:27am. It was bittersweet for JJ, however, and he found a smile despite the pain, or perhaps because of it.
His son, Caden, lay snoring on the couch. The fireplace alight with flames flicking the shadows every which way. Remnants of the party lay strewn about the floor. Streamers in places, half torn, yet hung from the ceiling here or there; some toys were on the floor; and he could smell the scents of the icing on the cake wafting in from the kitchen. If the sights and aromas were anything to judge by, he would say the party was a success, and Caden sure seemed to enjoy his little self.
JJ’s mind went back to Melinda as he took another sip of wine, of the day his beautiful boy came into the world. Another tear. Such joy, such agony, and all at the same moment. More tears. Even after all this time, five short-long years, JJ had yet to figure out how to live outside of Caden. In the next breath, he could no longer control the tears streaming down his face. JJ could admit he still had no idea how to navigate this emotional dichotomy.
A small coffee table waited in front of him, patiently holding a notebook with a pen in its rings.
It felt like it all happened that very morning. “Mr. Jones,” a voice had said so long ago, or maybe it was as recent as yesterday, “This is Nurse Trish, from the Intensive Care Unit at Methodist Hospital…” There was a hesitation in her voice, and his heart sank. He was unable to make out much more, catching only keywords, “…accident …baby …deceased …so sorry Mr. Jones.” He couldn’t breathe, and even now, five years later, he still had no idea how he made it to the hospital. Everything was a blur, simultaneously distant and all-too-near. He recalled hearing everything, but could make out none of it.
He remembered watching the doctors as they worked feverishly on the baby, who came out at an early 34 weeks, and needed to be closely monitored. Breathing machine, intravenous lines, and all while his wife lay unmoving in another part of the hospital, perhaps being pronounced dead as he stood there, unable to think or move. Thankfully, his sweet Caden was healthy, and required only a short time in the NICU.
However, the doctors gave no false hope to Joseph upon his arrival, informing him that the most he could do was be there for his son. That morning was the last he got to hold his beloved Melinda, or look into her eyes, or feel her gaze and touch in return.
He snapped back to the present and looked over at his beautiful Caden laying there snoring, perfect in every way – who had never seen his mother, never got to know her, whose joyous birth coincided with the worst day of JJ’s life.
It was still all too near, for it felt like just that morning JJ had kissed his lovely Melinda for the last time. If only she had stayed home like he wanted she might still be alive. Playfully, he had teased Melinda about not going in to work, to just call in for the day and stay home with him, that he would call in as well and they could make a sexy day of it. But the time drew near for baby Caden to be born, and Melinda wanted to make sure she maximized her time off with the baby, her workplace only allowing for so much.
JJ wiped a tear from his eye, a smile on his lips. His gaze belied the strange mixture of feelings he felt deep within. If he had only held onto her a moment longer, maybe she would have caught a red light that would have prevented her from being hit. If perhaps he had just let her go to work like normal she might have beaten her fate by crossing the light before the man ran the red light.
But if not her, then who? What other family might have suffered in JJ’s place? Every time he had such thoughts, those “what-ifs” that plague everyone, he felt a sense of guilt.
Sometimes the greatest memories were harbingers for the worst, and that made them that much more terrible.
He celebrated his son, to be certain, but behind the façade, he was just as broken as he was joyous – an odd dichotomy, a living paradox – and these emotions were always worst this time of year.
A smile, genuine for the joy of his son, doubled as a mask to hide the excruciating pain he also felt within. As he did every year on the anniversary of his wife’s loss, he reached for the notebook patiently waiting on the table for JJ and pulled his favorite pen from the rings. He removed the cap and began to scrawl a letter written for Melinda, but for Caden to read at some point in the future.
Melinda, he began, You should see our Caden. He looks more and more like you everyday. He’s rambunctious and loving and intelligent. You’d be so proud of him. I know I am…
He continued on into the night, until no more tears or words could come from him. Spent. His catharsis complete for the moment, he noticed where teardrops stained the paper with bleeding ink, now dried, and he got up, picked up Caden gently, and carried his angel boy to bed, careful to step over all the toys left out from the day’s activities. JJ smiled and kissed Caden on the forehead as he tucked him in.
When he woke up the next morning, his son was eating some cereal in the living room, watching cartoons on Netflix. JJ had to be strong, present, not altogether difficult, but he wanted the day and celebration with his son to be purposeful in every way. “Happy birthday, bud. Whatcha watching?” JJ yawned as he came up behind the couch where Caden sat on the floor watching TV.
A smile crossed JJ’s face, “It’s a bit loud, isn’t it?” Caden didn’t seem to catch his point, and JJ just left well enough alone, “I used to watch that when I was your age. Mind if I get some cereal and come sit with you? I could use a distraction.” He wished he could have taken back that last utterance as soon as it left his mouth.
“I don’t mind Daddy. Thinking about my mommy?” The kid never missed a thing, and while JJ never went into too much detail, he made sure to take the time to tell Caden how much he was loved by his mommy as well.
“Every day, my sweet boy. But today, my li’l angel, today is your day.” He pulled out a bowl and the milk as he looked over at Caden with a smile and a wink. The chair Caden used to reach everything still in the middle of the kitchen. As he looked around, he noticed that either no milk had been spilt, or Caden cleaned it up well enough. Either way, JJ was impressed.
Looking back to the TV, Caden replied, “I wish I coulda met her.”
“Oh you would have loved her. Hers was a smile that could light up the moon itself. Much like yours.” JJ smiled. An image flashed in his mind of his own childhood, when he was five, like Caden. He smiled at the thought of Heather, the only friend he had in the world at that tender age. Of how they would go to the big yucca down the street and collect ladybugs in their big jar, taking turns caring for the bugs. Truly, he thought of her often, for she was the only light to find in the overall darkness of his memories. “She loved you with all her heart.” JJ wanted only light for Caden.
He picked up the flat-laying box of cereal and poured it into his bowl, noting how it was toppled over on the counter, spilt all over the place. “You couldn’t pick up your mess?” JJ rolled his eyes and turned toward the living room as he heard and felt the crunch of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch square under his bare foot.
Caden looked at his dad and beamed, completely ignoring the last bit, “I have mom’s smile? Everyone says I look just like you.”
“Well, I say you have your mommy’s smile. I see so much of her in you, my baby. I think you are looking more like her with every passing day. And yeah, you definitely have her smile. Yup, that one right there,” JJ said, putting the box of cereal and the milk away, determined to clean up the kitchen after he finished eating with Caden.
“I’m not a baby anymore. I’m five now.”
“Well then, big boy, you can clean up the mess you made.” JJ grabbed his bowl and left the kitchen to sit next to his lovely boy, cross-legged on the floor, then he leaned over and bumped Caden lightly. Caden put his bowl down and tried with all his might to budge dad with his little shoulder.
Caden looked over at JJ, defeated, “Not fair, daddy. But one day, I’ll get you back.”
“Can’t wait, li’l buddy. So, today is your actual birthday. What do you want to do? Today is yours.”
“I wanna visit mom’s favorite place. Then get some Legos and come back and build them with you.”
“You’re definitely my kid. I love you, bud.”
“Love you too, Daddy.”
JJ looked over at the mantle where his wife lay, a picture of the two of them, Melinda beaming and glowing as a pregnant woman often does, and they both hugged her growing belly. Even now, she could take his breath away in all the greatest of ways.
Melinda’s favorite place had been the lake, not too far from their home. It had become Caden’s favorite place as well, although JJ was unsure whether it was because it was his mom’s favorite, or because he really just loved it there. It was summer, and a perfect day for a swim. So they would go and enjoy a swim, and some ice cream and candy, and Lego building, even if the memories of his wife would eat him alive.
One day he would need to let her go. JJ thought about his mom and dad, who kept telling him that Caden needed a mom in his young life. But he didn’t want anyone, he was doing okay, at least he had convinced himself he was okay. Convinced himself that he didn’t need anyone. They had their home, and food, and plenty of smiles and laughter to fill the house. Aside from a massive hole in his heart that never healed, JJ was, indeed, happy. Caden was that happiness.
The lake was warm, as expected, but so nice. JJ had taught Caden to swim in the lake from the time he was very little, after a bit of a fright when Caden ran and jumped in the water during a barbeque. It scared JJ, but now he was confident in Caden’s ability to swim, and while he never takes his eyes off his precious boy, he also knows he can worry a bit less.
A big grin went across JJ’s face as he unloaded the car and turned to see Caden jump off the small pier and right into the water. No fear.
“Hey bud!” JJ yelled when Caden resurfaced a second later.
Treading water, Caden flashed his teeth at his daddy, “Yeah dad?!”
“I’m gonna set up our picnic, be careful!”
“Daaaaaadd…” came the exasperated reply. And with that, Caden was swimming around like he owned the place. JJ laughed and finished walking to the shore, ever vigilant.
“You ready for a sammich, bud?”
“No, I’m ready to swim!”
“You don’t need your goggles?”
“Well, I suppose it’s fun to see in the water. Can you toss them to me?”
“No, what if I hit you?” JJ laid out the blanket and food. “Come get your goggles and have a sammich.”
“Ugh, fine.” And Caden disappeared beneath the surface. JJ could still see his son, swimming like a frog toward the shore. The kid was getting better and better with holding his breath. After enjoying a quick sandwich, and putting some sunblock on the boy, Caden was back in the water, and soon thereafter JJ joined him in the water. Splashing about, swimming, they enjoyed a couple of hours at the lake, taking in all the sun they could.
The bags the Legos came in were always so loud, and opening up the new set brought a smile to JJ’s face as he wrestled with them, struggling to open them so the Legos wouldn’t explode outward every which way. He failed at least once, to raucous laughter from Caden, and he joined his son, unable to contain it, until his belly and sides ached, tears rolling down his cheeks.
Eventually they found all the scattered Legos and placed them into piles associated with the bags, at least as much as they could. They would find out shortly how well they did. Regardless, the two of them had a blast together, and JJ absolutely loved the time he spent on the floor, his butt and knees hurting, his feet having lost all feeling except for the pins and needles he loathed so much, and yet, he refused to move from his son’s side until they had finished putting together the set. After that, JJ only got up to grab the bin of Legos so they could play some more. It was a funnily slow and painful walk, but JJ couldn’t care any less if he’d tried. Caden was all that mattered.
The shared smiles and fun Caden was having was enough for him. He could even feel Melinda’s smile on them both. Her spirit was always with them, JJ just wished he could hold her again, that he could touch her once more.
JJ was brought out of his reverie, “Yeah, bud?”
“I wanna hear a story about Mommy.”
“Oh yeah? Which one?”
“The funny one. Where I made mama sick and she told you, ‘This child is trying to kill me,’ it always makes me laugh.” He raised his voice to try and imitate a mama whose voice he only ever heard from within the womb, and JJ laughed at both Caden and the memory.
“Well, you know the story so well, maybe you should tell it to me,” JJ smiled.
Caden looked at him cockeyed, a mixture of JJ’s own brand of humor and Melinda’s attitude, “No Daddy, you need to tell it.”
“Fine,” JJ conceded. “Well,” he began, “your mama and I had just found out that we were going to be having a baby, and your mama wanted to eat at her favorite restaurant to celebrate.”
“Mommy loved eating at Olive Garden, huh Dad?”
“She really did, even though the quality of food had gone down,” JJ shrugged and frowned a bit, crinkling his eyebrows in exaggerated consideration as he recalled the tale to his son. This drew smiles from Caden.
“You mean the food was gross, Daddy?”
“Well, not that bad, bud, but I pretty much only liked the breadsticks at that point,” JJ laughed with the reminiscence of his beloved wife. “Whatever your mom ate, which I think was the fettucine alfredo, did not sit well with her.”
“Yucky. That stuff is gross.”
JJ laughed again, “It’s not that gross, relax.”
“Well I don’t like it,” Caden said, matter-of-factly, as though he’d tried every food known to man.
“So I’ve noticed. Anyway, after we got home, your mommy’s tummy was bothering her, and very soon she ran to the bathroom.”
“See dad? The noodles made mama sick, and now I can’t eat them.”
“Oh, is that how that works?”
“Duh,” Caden shook his head as he rolled his eyes at his father, all too obvious for the five year old. Daddy clearly knew nothing.
“Where did you get your attitude from, you li’l turd?”
It was JJ’s turn to roll his eyes, and he scoffed in mock exasperation at his son, “Well, regardless, your mama, leaning over the toilet after throwing up,” Caden was giggling like the little boy he was, “she looked up at me, wiped her face, and said, “This child is trying to kill me.” JJ left out the real phrasing Melinda used so his five-year-old boy wouldn’t know that Mommy had a potty mouth, but he found himself laughing at her actual spoken words.
She loved Caden from the moment they saw him on the ultrasound. The tears in her eyes of pure joy mirrored JJ’s. They had been trying for years. Seeing and hearing the little heartbeat was enough to make Melinda bawl. JJ held her hand and kissed it, staring at the little life within her womb, tears streaming down his face as well.
They were going to have a baby.
“Daddy?” Caden pulled JJ back to the present.
“Yes, my li’l love?”
“Mama was the best, wasn’t she?”
“The very best. And even though you were trying to kill her,” he joked teasingly as he tickled Caden, “she loved you more than life itself,” a big grin crossed JJ’s face and he winked at Caden again.
“I wasn’t actually trying to kill mama.”
“Well, I know that, but how do you know? You’re just a li’l turd. You couldn’t possibly remember.” JJ continued to tease Caden.
“I sure do,” he beamed, with a smile that could outshine the sun. Then he looked up at his daddy again and asked, “Daddy, do you ever think about finding me another mama to love me and you?”
“You really should stop listening to your grandparents,” JJ chuckled. “And why would we need another mama for you? Your mama was amazing. I don’t think we could find someone like her again,” he offered up in return. Perhaps his parents were right, he could not find another Melinda, but perhaps he could find someone who could love Caden the way he deserved to be loved. After these five years, JJ never really gave women a second thought. Sure, he might find himself physically attracted to someone, but moments like that passed through his mind quickly
“I don’t know, there are a lot of girls out there. I see them all the time in my school and class.” Life was much simpler for a kid. JJ understood though, if Caden saw girls everywhere, then his daddy ought to be seeing women everywhere as well. Truth be told, JJ had pretty much stopped looking altogether. Or, perhaps more accurately, he saw but never took notice.
“There are a lot of girls, but none quite like your mama. She was the only one in the whole world that I could find like her,” oh the romance of it all, which was completely lost on Caden.
“Daddy,” he looked at JJ with that Melinda-attitude again, and JJ knew he was about to get educated, “but you haven’t seen the whole world.”
“And just when did you become so stinkin’ smart?” JJ scooped up Caden in his arms and held him close, tickling the poor boy trapped in daddy’s embrace. “Huh? Huh?”
Caden laughed, fighting for JJ to stop, but then wanted more when JJ slowed his assault. Eventually, it was time for bed, and JJ tucked Caden in for the night. “School tomorrow, li’l bud. Did you have fun today?”
“It was the best day ever. Love you daddy.”
“Love you more, my sweet boy.”
“Nuh uh, I love you nineteen!”
“Whoa… that much? Are you sure?”
“Well, I don’t know if I can handle all of that, Caden, but you know what?”
“I’ll bet you anything when I get up in the morning my heart will have grown more to hold all that love you’re sending my way.”
“Is that how it works, daddy? Our hearts grow and fill with love?”
“Yes, my li’l love. That’s how it works. I love you, Caden. Sleep well, my baby boy.”
“I’m five dad, this many,” Caden held up all the fingers on his hand.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, I must have forgotten. Sleep well, my big boy.” JJ turned and closed the door a smidge on his way out, leaving the hallway light on for Caden, “Good night, Caden. I love you.”
“I love you too, Daddy.”
JJ was the luckiest man on the planet. He went to his bathroom, brushed his teeth and sat in bed with the lamp on, pulling out a book to read. Tonight was a continuation of War Angel, by A.L. Mengel.