My daughter looks exactly like her mother. She’s practically a carbon copy down to her mannerisms and the things she says. She says “Really?” in a way that conveys skepticism without really calling you a liar, just like her mother does. She even flips her hair to the side just like her mother did back when she was younger and had long hair. In the days after Barbara left, I would often find myself staring at my daughter dumbfounded as if my wife had come back as her younger self to look after me. I suspected that Barbara had left instructions for Carla to take care of me, not that I needed it, but you know how wives are; they think their husbands are helpless without them.
One morning, Carla stood before me as I sat in my usual chair by the big window in my living room. The sun bore down the window, but the closed dark blinds blocked most of its exasperating light. Dust floated in the air around us glistening in the light that managed to peek through the slats of the blinds. I inhaled and sucked in the dust. I imagined I could feel the dust trickle down my windpipe and cling to the darkened walls of my lungs. I almost choked and panicked, so I took another deep breath, a heaving, wheezy kind that only an old man can do.
“Are you okay, daddy?” Carla asked. Concern riddled her beautiful face. Barbara spoke to me.
I said nothing at first. I adjusted the cannulas clipped to my nose and breathed in heavily again. Carla looked at me expectantly and reached out to touch my arm. “I’m fine,” I replied. I tried to sound strong, but my breath failed to propel the words very far. Carla rubbed my arm.
“The nurse will be here in about an hour,” she said. She still looked pained much like her mother looked when one of her children was sick. Carla was rarely sick, but her brother was a constant source of worry when he was young. He had ear aches, sore throats, and high fevers with a regularity that sent us to scurrying to the doctor looking for answers. Barbara spent many a night lying next to our son consoling him to sleep. He was fretful and agitated much of the time clawing at his ears like he could dig out the source of the evil that hurt him. When he was eight, he had his tonsils removed, and after that his problems went away. I had never seen Barbara so relieved as she was when his illnesses finally stopped.
“Have you talked to your mother?” I asked.
Carla froze in her spot and stared at me as if I had spoken to her in a foreign tongue. She looked shocked or pained like I had mentioned some taboo subject. I tried to discern what she knew and what she was hiding, but my senses failed me. I could only stare at the malevolent dust that floated in the sunlight between us.
“No, daddy, I haven’t. Why are you asking that?” she replied. She became visibly agitated and trembled just a little as she took my hand in hers. I continued to search her face for answers but none came.
“I need to talk to your mother,” I insisted.
Carla looked away and batted back tears. I could see them glistening in the sunlight. She pursed her lips and let out a sigh that parted the dust around her. “You can’t talk to her, daddy. You know that.”
She looked directly at me in that caring way her mother often used when she encountered a little child. A tear trickled down her cheek, and she wiped it away without taking her eyes off me. I wondered why she was protecting her mother and why she wouldn’t tell me where her mother was. I knew that if I could just talk to Barbara everything would be right again. I wasn’t sure what I had done wrong or why she had stopped loving me, but I knew that I had to talk to her.
I coughed and the cannulas slid off my nose. Carla bent over and adjusted them on my face as I took another scratchy breath. She gave me a sad smile and kissed my forehead, and for a moment, I thought it was Barbara standing before me. I had a hard time telling the difference between those two. They were that much alike.
“Do you want something to drink?” she asked as she sat back down across from me.
I shook my head weakly indicating that I did want something.
“Tea?” she asked.
I nodded yes.
My daughter stood up and disappeared into my kitchen leaving me alone in the dim room. I shuffled my feet trying to get more comfortable in my chair. My bottom ached from sitting so long, but there was no position that made me feel truly comfortable. I looked at my walker beside the chair and briefly considered standing to join my daughter in the kitchen, but I was simply too tired. Such was my life.
In what seemed like an eternity, Carla returned with a glass of ice tea. She helped me take a few sips from a straw before she sat it down on the table beside my chair. “Let me know when you want some more and I’ll help you,” she said as she sat back down across from me.
I thought for a moment in the silence that drifted between us. “Why can’t you tell me where your mother is?” I asked after a few moments.
“Daddy…,” she began. She looked at me and then looked away. Her trembling hand touched her face. He lips quivered. “Daddy, can we talk about something else?”
She fell silent. She leaned over, grabbed the glass of tea, and offered it to me. I refused and she sat it back on the table next to me. I wasn’t going to cooperate with her if she didn’t cooperate with me. I had to see Barbara. I had to talk to her. My daughter always protected her mother. They had a bond that was stronger than anything I’d ever had with either of my kids. For most of my life, I admired that bond. Now, I resented it.
The doorbell rang, and my daughter stood up tidying herself before she walked to the door. I heard the nurse say hello, and they talked in a hushed tone that I could not quite hear or understand. I didn’t bother to look back to the door. I was too tired and my neck ached anyway. I heard footsteps across the floor, and then, the nurse’s big round face, full of a smile, appeared before me.
“How are you today, Jim?” she asked. She was so cheerful, it was hard for me not to feel better on some level.
“Fine,” I replied somewhat sullenly.
“Great!” She set her bag at my feet and checked my oxygen tank. “Any problems overnight?”
“I need to talk to Barbara,” I replied. The nurse turned to Carla and something passed between them. That’s when I knew they were working together. They were both protecting Barbara. I didn’t understand why. I had done nothing wrong. I still loved my wife. I just wanted to know why she didn’t love me anymore. I had to know. After all these years, I had to know.