Neal returns to his parents' home with his sister for Christmas dinner, a little over a week after Lorin's death. He has not told his parents what happened, is doing his best to act as normal as possible, and is fervently hoping they did not see the obituary in the paper.
Neal's mother, Eleanor, knows more than she lets on at first, and proves she is still one of Neal's staunchest allies.
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J. St. M.
By some miracle, Neal got through dinner and dessert without incident. Afterwards, when everyone else went to the stables for a post-dinner ride, he and his mother were left alone in the kitchen, bickering mildly about whether he would or would not assist her with cleaning up. Being desperate to stay busy and hopefully keep himself from thinking too much, he was more determined than usual, and did not give up and sit down for a cup of tea, no matter how many times Eleanor urged him to do so.
“I’ll wash, and you dry,” he insisted. “If you’ll agree to that, then it won’t be necessary for me to tie you to a chair and take over completely.”
“Is that my only other option?”
He smiled. “Yes. Christmas dinner is a monumental production; you shouldn’t have to make everything and then do all the clean-up. It’s handy in a way, isn’t it, that I can’t ride?”
“Yes, but--do you still wish you could?”
“Ride? Well, I suppose if I had no recollection of falling and breaking my arm, then I might still wish I could. As it is, I’d much rather wash dishes.” He rolled up his sleeves and set himself to the task, and handed the clean things to his mother, one by one.
“Neal, I know I ought not to pry, but--where is Lorin? I mean, really? Never once in all the years you’ve known him has he spent Christmas in his mother’s home. He has always come here, with you. Why not this time?”
Neal kept his focus trained on the roasting pan in his hands, and scrubbed harder. “A man can change a pattern, can’t he?”
“Of course, but my point is, Lorin wouldn’t. He has been part of this family for years now, to the point where he barely ever mentions his own family. Please tell me you haven’t broken up!”
Neal turned and stared at her, feigning surprise. “Broken up? Why, Mum, what makes you think we--”
“Neal, I’m no fool. I have eyes in my head, and besides, my brother was gay. I knew about you long ago, and never thought it would take you so many years to say anything about it. Tell me: if I hadn’t put it to you point-blank, you never would have said a word, would you?”
“I wouldn’t say never, but--”
“Twenty years from now? Thirty years from now?”
“I was afraid of how Dad would react, so I’ve kept quiet.”
“We spend enough time alone together, you and I, and I can keep a secret. You could have trusted me.”
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, fighting to keep his voice from breaking. He rinsed the roasting pan and handed it to her.
“Never mind the damn dishes!” she snapped, and put it down on the counter sharply, undried. “Something is wrong, Neal, and I want to know what it is! Come on, talk to me. They’ll all be gone for at least two hours. We have plenty of time.”
“Mum, there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to work through all I must right now, and I’m going to keep on with the dishes, if you don’t mind. I need to stay busy while I talk, or I won’t be able to talk at all.”
“All right, and I’ll make a confession before you even begin. Neal, I saw the Times this week.”
Neal felt his heart drop. “Then you know.”
“Yes, I know. As far as I’m aware, your father doesn’t, because I got to the paper before he did, just by chance, and I hid the page after I read the obituary. I didn’t want to say anything to anyone until I had talked to you. The paper only said it was a sudden illness. Does anyone know what really happened?”
“Yes. There was an autopsy.”
“He had a cerebral aneurysm: one of those hidden things that doesn’t get noticed until it’s too late. It ruptured and caused a massive stroke. Two hours later, he was gone. I was with him in the ER, and I watched him die.”
His eyes filled, and he could no longer see the pan he was washing. His hands were shaking badly, and finally he withdrew them and dried them, and slowly sank to the floor, and at last ended up sitting there in front of the sink, his knees drawn up, and his head in his hands.
Eleanor sat down beside him and held out her arms.
Neal turned to her and rested his head on her breast, and crumbled. He had been trying too hard to be strong, and had never allowed himself to grieve as fully as he needed to. He wept so hard now, he could not even attempt to speak.
“Oh, sweetheart,” she crooned, and rocked him in her arms. “That’s right. Let it all out.”
It was good to just cry, and not feel as if he had to control it, or limit the time it took to get all the grief out of his system. In the end, it was a solid twenty minutes before he could speak again, and when he did, of course it was an apology.
“Mum, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean--”
“Hush! If you hadn’t broken down, I would have sworn you had ice water in your veins! You loved Lorin. It’s right that you should grieve the loss. Who ever taught you it was shameful to show your emotions?”
“Well, you know Dad has always been such a one for the chin up and carry on approach. It was all right for me to cry when I was under ten, but after that, God forbid!”
“I would never hold you to that, nor judge you for showing your emotions.” She was still holding him and stroking his hair. “You’re not starting a headache, are you?”
“I’m afraid I am, and I think it’s going to be a bad one.”
“Do you have your medicine?”
“Yes. I don’t dare go anywhere without it. Could you help me upstairs to my room?”
“Certainly.” She released him and stood up, and offered her hands.
He took them and rose slowly, and picked up his cane.
Soon, he was settled in his old bedroom, medication administered, and as comfortable as he could hope to be with his head pounding so painfully. Eleanor sat on the edge of the bed, facing him, and holding his hand.
“Neal?” she said softly, keeping her voice low so as not to exacerbate his headache.
“Is it my imagination, or is your hair going grey?”
“It’s not going grey; it’s gone grey. It started to turn right after Lorin died, and it was a matter of days until it changed over completely. I don’t know why, but I doubt it will ever go back, unless I resort to dyeing it, and I’m not about to do that.”
“I’ve heard of extreme stress or trauma causing a person to go grey suddenly, and there’s no doubt you’ve had both. Anything more I can do for you now?”
“There’s a sleep mask in the nightstand drawer. I need it to block out the light. There are also some earplugs. I’ll put those in after you go.”
Eleanor found the things and handed them to him.
With the mask in place, Neal felt a tiny bit better. “Mum, I have no idea how long this will go on. I’ve had migraines last as long as a week, and as little as a couple of hours. If this is one of my long-term headaches, do you think you or Dad could bring Ami back to the city?”
“And about Dad--”
“What about him?”
“Does he know about--about me--and Lorin?”
“He has never said anything directly to indicate that, but some of his comments over the last few years have led me to believe that he has suspicions. The comments were either intended to warn me subtly, or to prompt me to confirm what he believed. I was careful never to respond.”
“I would appreciate it if you would keep silence, then. It’s bad enough that Nigel knows.”
“You told Nigel, and you didn’t tell me?”
“Telling Nigel was not by choice; he caught us in bed together. Not that we were doing anything but sleeping at the time, but Lorin did have his arms around me, and it was pretty clear that we were more than friends.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Spring of seventy-nine, the first time I ever brought him here. We were newly involved, and very much in love, and it wasn’t easy to be discreet. When did you figure it out?”
Eleanor laughed softly. “Around the same time. I was in the den, drawing the curtains for the night, and I realized someone was in the porch swing. I looked to see who it might be at that hour, and you were there with Lorin. He was sitting on your lap, and you had your arms around each other, and you were kissing.”
“And you never said anything?”
“No. I was just so thankful to see you had someone in your life who could make a difference. He appeared to see you for yourself, not as a man to be pitied. Your relationship had nothing to do with your disability, and you seemed able to forget all about it when you were with him.”
“I was able to forget, for the most part. It was a bit of a challenge when I was having my leg fixed, because I was incapacitated for so long, but even that didn’t faze him. And my recovery wasn’t easy on him. I really couldn’t do much of anything for myself when I was at home between operations. The cast and crutches made even the simplest actions dificult. At least he got a bit of a break during the times I had to stay in hospital.”
“If you had it to do over again, would you?”
“Yes. Even with the complications I ran into, I’m so much better off than I was before. And now I have a new orthotic that works so well, I forget part of my foot is gone until I take my shoes off and see it.”
“You’re not depressed about it anymore?”
“No. It was hard to accept at first, but I kept telling myself it could have been so much worse. I could have lost the whole foot, or everything below the knee. It was pretty touch and go for awhile after that operation. I had to stay in hospital a lot longer than I did any of the other times.”
“I remember. You were in over Christmas, but rather than have an empty place at the table, we simply moved the entire feast to your hospital room. As inconvenient as that was, I’m still glad I insisted upon it.”
“I’m glad you did, too. It’s one of my nice memories from that point in time. I actually forgot about how much pain I was in for a few hours.”
“That was my intention, and I’m glad to know I succeeded.”
“You and Sister Morphine,” Neal confessed. “I’m sorry to say, but when I got word that you were all coming to visit, I asked for a shot, in hopes that it would enable me to be civil. The pain put me in a rather foul humor most of the time. Just ask Lorin--” He trailed off. “Oh, God, Mum! It still doesn’t seem real.”
“I know.” She smoothed his hair back from his brow. “How is your headache now?”
“Nasty, but not unbearable.”
“I should leave you to sleep.”
He squeezed her hand. “Mum, headache or no, it was good that we had this time together. Tell me, are you upset about me being--well--the way I am?”
“No, not at all. My brother--”
“We didn’t see him very often, did we?”
“No. He and your father didn’t get on with each other.”
“Because he was gay?”
“Partly, and partly because he was very high maintenance. He suffered terribly with depression after he and his partner broke up, and he would call at some very odd times, and keep me on the phone for hours. Your father resented that. I had to let go after awhile, because I couldn’t fix his problems for him.”
“Do you still hear from him?”
“No. He’s dead. The depression finally got to be too much for him. He hanged himself fifteen years ago.”
“And you never said anything to any of us?”
“You were thirteen at the time. How could I possibly have explained it? And besides, you didn’t really know him.”
“I’m not thinking of him, but of you. It seems you could have used a friend to listen to you.”
“And I had one. Do you remember Father Gainsford?”
“He was a good friend, and a wonderful confessor. He helped me work through it. Is your vicar any help?”
“St. John is wonderful, and very understanding. He went with me to Lorin’s wake. It was a rather hostile environment, so I was glad to have his company, as well as Ami’s. Lorin’s teacher from North Haven turned up at the right moment, too, and Roger, against his mother’s wishes, welcomed me with open arms. They all stayed with me, and guarded me from any interaction with Mrs. Wethersford.”
“She didn’t like you much, did she?”
Neal laughed bitterly. “Oh, Mum, if that isn’t the understatement of the year! Margo Wethersford absolutely hated me. She called me up the day Lorin died and ordered me not to show my face at the wake or the funeral. I disregarded her orders, of course. I went to the wake, and I directed the music at the funeral.”
“Did you? What did the choir sing?”
“The Duruflé Requiem.”
“And you directed that?”
“That’s not an easy piece of music.”
“No, it isn’t, but Lorin and I had been working on it with the choir, with the intent of offering a concert performance in the Spring. Lorin needed me to direct, because he was going to play the organ part. We learned the piece together. His teacher knew the organ part very well, and the choir knew their parts solidly, so my job at the funeral was relatively easy, musically speaking . Emotionally, though--” He sighed. “I’d rather not go there. Maybe I can talk about it more someday, but for now the memory is too raw.”
“I understand.” Eleanor stood up, then leaned down and kissed his brow. “I love you, Neal. Sleep well.”
“Love you, too, Mum. Thank you.”
Eleanor walked to the door and closed it softly behind her, and left Neal to sink into quiet oblivion.