Dad always called my daughter, Natalie, an “old soul.” Maybe because she’d listen to his old Julie London and Frank Sinatra records and knew those lyrics better than most of the contemporary music or because she read the poetry he liked, could recite Donald Hall and Pablo Neruda (in Spanish), and even wrote her own poetry that was spellbinding in its ability to discern truth and display a keen knowledge of nature.
Details: Natalie’s birth was a hard one. I felt like I was in labor for a week and even though Juan and I said we wanted to have a family of four, Natalie became our one and only, and we both didn’t mind because Natalie was the equal of any four.
“Mama, I want to help people,” she said to me when she was twelve, after the police were called next door when Johan Gohrmann beat his wife while his children watched.
Natalie understood what it meant to be different. I am Cherokee and Scottish, and her father is black and Hispanic. Her dark skin meant that she was different from the majority Anglo population at her school. If it mattered, I never knew. She adapted.
In college, she found the love of her life, or so she told me. Joel Ingersson, a tall, very Scandinavian-looking boy with bright azure eyes and hair the color of corn silk.
Just seeing them together reminded me of what it was like to first be in love.
At Thanksgiving he showed up five minutes before we were about to sit down for our meal. Natalie grabbed his hand and grinned. He smiled back at her. He’d do anything for her.
Natalie said “grace.” At first, it was the one that all schoolchildren learn, and then she added: “Thank you for bringing Joel here to be with me and my family and to join us in the way that I hope we will always know in the future.”
Her words raised goosebumps.
Three days later they returned to college. She’d be home again in three weeks. I counted the days.
I worked as a proofreader. It’s a job of details. It’s a taxing job in that you must be paying full attention to what you’re reading. Music and conversation are invasive, so you work in total silence, which can be difficult when it’s nearing Christmas. Happy hours appear far more often. Days end earlier. Alcohol flows freer. Laughter vibrates like cymbals on a drum set.
I barely heard the vibration of my cell phone against the cacophony. I glanced at the message.
Natalie: Mom, me and Joel are leaving now. Should be home in three hours. See you. Love you.
Three hours. I still had loads to do. I hadn’t made beds. The baking! I wanted to make her favorite pignoli cookies. Also, I’d found this recipe for glogg that I hoped Joel would like because Natalie said his family did traditional Swedish things.
Juan was already home when I arrived. From the smell, I knew that he’d prepared his famous rice and beans. I loved him for it. It was one less thing that I had to do.
When I entered the kitchen, he pulled me into his arms and kissed me the way he used to when we first met. I caressed his cheek with my index finger. “Mi amor.”
“I will love you to the ends of the earth,” he said.
I giggled. He was the only person or thing in the entire world who could make me giggle. We hugged and swayed, reveling in our closeness. His lips pressed against my temple, and I inhaled his woodsy scent, although now spiced with sautéed onion.
“Natalie’s on her way home,” I breathed into his ear.
“Good,” he said. “She’ll have a hearty dinner. I’ve made tres leches for dessert.”
“You already knew she was coming,” I said, knowing that he only makes tres leches for her.
He shrugged, his lips on my earlobe. I sighed.
Our time in the kitchen was always delicious, sambas played, we choreographed cooking and movement and kisses.
All the while we anticipated. Our love for Natalie could fill volumes. She was our pride and joy and our hopes. We were successful, but we always wanted more, and the best, for her.
Four hours passed.
Now I glanced constantly, fearfully, at the clock. Natalie was never late. Joel, perhaps. Perhaps he was the reason.
My cell danced across the countertop. I grabbed it.
He tried to speak, but his voice broke, and something in me broke immediately because I knew that whatever his next words would be that I would never, ever, recover from them.
I handed the phone to Juan while I cupped my hand over my mouth and left the room. Details. I could tell the body from Joel’s voice. Details, I hoped never to hear.
What do you do when a teenager decides to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge onto a highway constantly full of cars? Cars carrying people from all walks of life. Perhaps a couple of college kids heading home for Christmas. A couple very much in love. A daughter who is an only child. A daughter who wants only to help people. A young woman with all of her life in front of her. A girl who can sing “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” A young woman who quotes: “In this part of the story I am the one who Dies, the only one…”