Willow had a flair for mismatching her clothes, just like my girls. Her red hair was cut in a choppy bob—matted in the back—and she owned so many pairs of artsy eyeglasses, it was hard to keep track. She was two and a half years old when she first came to spend some days every week with us, and from the start, she was absorbed into our family. Back then, life was a whirlwind of four little girls in dirty, bare feet and princess dresses.
Jim visited for a bit each time he dropped off Willow at our house. He was upbeat even though he awoke each day to his battle with melanoma. An outdoors enthusiast, he biked everywhere and told stories about his adventurous rides. Some days he’d have a seizure, fall off his bicycle, and pass out. He’d wake up to find himself in an ambulance heading for the ER. I cringed at his stories. He’d shrug and laugh. As we talked more about his declining health, the girls leaned into our adult mystery world, pretending to play on the floor near us, but I wished they’d play for real somewhere else. No kid should know what cancer means.
Although Willow was younger than Ricka by five months, she was bigger, so Rachelle brought us bags of clothes Willow had outgrown—those black, garbage bags brimming with delights that smelled like The Wedge food co-op and Rachelle’s house. Purple Danskos and Hanna Anderson clothes, Scandinavian sweaters and red Doc Martens—all second-hand for Willow too when she first got them.
One day, Rachelle was the one to drop off Willow. She lingered. I invited her to sit. No, she’d have to go in a minute, she said. But she stood for a while in my open front door anyway. When the girls scampered away, she showed me the hidden thing on the pages of her life’s book.
When Jim was first diagnosed with cancer, they chased after treatments. Convinced there was no way for their family to expand during his radiation therapy, Rachelle and Jim had loved without restrictions. But she had become pregnant. They didn’t know what to do. How could they manage a baby in their circumstances? And along with Ireland and Willow? What they faced was too hard, too overwhelming to bring another life into it. Jim suggested they give the baby up to his sister who was unable to have one of her own. Rachelle readily agreed. It made the most sense. They spoke with Jim’s sister about it, promising her their baby, and she was overjoyed.
Then five months into the pregnancy, Rachelle changed her mind. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t give away the little one she carried. She wouldn’t give her up! But Jim firmly stated it was too late; they had already given their word. And their word was their word; they couldn’t break it now.
I dropped onto the couch, heavy under the weight of the story, forgetting I had my own children, and they were somewhere else in the house doing heaven-knows-what. Rachelle remained in the doorway, retelling her narrative without emotion. She didn’t seem to be trying to gauge my reaction, and she wasn’t pressing for sympathy. She just delivered her story—a delicate thing barely breathing as it came out into the reality of my living room.
Baby Ruby was born in February of 2004, only three months before I met Rachelle—three months before Dicka was born. Rachelle had honored her husband’s wishes after all, and Ruby went to live with Jim’s sister—her new mother.
“Can you get her back?” I finally said.
“No,” Rachelle said. “We gave our word.”
“But what if Jim’s not here one day, and it’s just you, and she’s yours—”
“No.” Her eyes were wide and soft at the same time.
My chest felt hollow. I had forgotten about the garbage bags of goodies, the seizures on bikes, the time we spent with Willow each week. It was all about Rachelle now. And Ruby.
Later, I told Husband the fragile story. Sad, he frowned and shook his head, but he fell asleep that night. I didn’t.
Bear one another’s burdens.
The next day, I paced. Distracted and on autopilot, I cared for the girls. I wasn’t hungry, and I couldn’t focus. I was sick with a regret that wasn’t mine and grieving a loss I hadn’t suffered. I was desperate for Ruby.
Later, I went shopping and picked out a fragrant bar of soap and a cute dish towel and tucked them into a gift bag.
“I can’t stop thinking about you. And Ruby,” I said to Rachelle when she came over. I handed her the gift.
“You didn’t have to do this,” she said, peeking into the bag.
I looked at the pittance in her hands. A small gift to soothe a gaping heart-wound. A ridiculous offering.
“Rachelle, I’ve decided I don’t want you to pay me anymore. Just let me watch Willow for you.”
“How about a bartering system? You babysitting Willow for art?”
“I’d love that.”
If I could be an artist, my medium would be paint, and my style would be just like Rachelle’s. Egon Schiele meets early Picasso. I drooled over a few pieces of art in her house and ended up acquiring a couple of them over the next year in exchange for watching Willow. Finally, I commissioned a painting, telling Rachelle just what I wanted.
“For me to do this,” she said, “you’ll have to tell me who he is to you.”
“He’s the Lifter of my head and the Lover of my soul,” I said.
Rachelle unveiled the painting in the spring of 2006 at an art gallery showcasing her work in northeast Minneapolis. I went with a friend to the opening night. My eyes welled with tears seeing my idea on canvas combined with her artistic interpretation. I noticed the card attached by its side: “Not for Sale.”
Rachelle stood by me as I gazed at her work. I nodded. She took it off the wall to show me the title she had given it, written on the back: “Welcome.”
I took the painting home that night. It fit perfectly above the window over my buffet, and I stared at it. Jesus, his eyes intense and his palms marked by excruciating love. One of his hands pushed away the darkness, and the other was opened to welcome all who would come.
*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date/
*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.