R Jonathan Radcliff, Esquire, hated this part of his legal duties. Between the thumb and forefinger of each hand he held a letter, careful not to smudge or crease them. A quick glance encompassing the crowded room painted a vision in his mind: wing-back chairs, red velvet wallpaper, Aubusson carpet, damask drapes--all the accoutrements of affluence. He could imagine himself in this dream mansion, with its symbols of wealth. Only the urn sitting on a lone pedestal surrounded by flowers reminded him he was in a funeral home.
He circled around the clusters of people murmuring conversations, nodding to those whose eyes met his. Coming to a halt near the family of the deceased, Jonathan cleared his throat with a gentleness demanded by the occasion, gathering their attention. “I don’t mean to intrude...”
The daughter, Kaitlin, turned to face him. Jonathan schooled his face to blankness as he took in her rainbow-streaked hair, arm tattoos, and numerous facial piercings. He could never get used to the younger generation’s fascination with what they called “expressionism.” He took her outstretched hand and shook it gently.
“Mr. Radcliff, it’s very nice to see you again,” Kaitlin said.
Jonathan acknowledged her words with a nod and fixed his attention on the man at her side. In direct opposition to his sister, Stephen was the epitome of the All-American boy. Tall and athletic with close cropped dark hair and eyes the color of good chocolate, Jonathan knew he managed a popular music retail store in the area.
Stephen caught Jonathan’s hand in a solid grip. “Thank you for coming,” the younger man murmured.
Somber silence settled over them. Kaitlin’s hazel eyes strayed to the urn, then down, as if she could not bear to stare too long.
“I have something for you both. These are letters from your mother. At our final meeting last year, when we were discussing the probate in her will, she asked that I give these to you at the viewing. Between the cancer and Alzheimer’s, I understand why you chose to go ahead with the cremation.” He held out the letters, a name emblazoned on each. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Stephen and Kaitlin stared at the letters Jonathan handed them. He wondered if they would understand this last gesture from a parent who, in the final year of her life, had forgotten everything.
With one accord, they nodded and left to find somewhere with more privacy. The funeral director, hovering just outside the door, led them down the hall where he gestured to a small room, leaving them alone with the quiet discretion of his profession.
Stephen watched the man walk away. “How does he do that? I swear he´s been reading my mind all evening.”
Kaitlin just smiled and sat. She sighed and turned the letter over. “I suppose we should read these now.” She fiddled with the envelope in her hand.
Stephen walked over to the window and opened his letter, absently noticing his mother’s beautiful handwriting.
´My dearest Stephen,
´You are my favorite child. I hope that you will read this, my last letter to you, without divulging its contents to your sister. This is for your eyes only.
You are my son, my first-born. I was so scared while I was carrying you deep within me. I had no idea that the squalling ten-pound baby I gave birth to would turn out to be the man you are now. You were my experiment. You were my angst.
´You are my darling.
´You were always the first of all the other babies your age: the first to turn over, the first to laugh, the first to walk. You were the best. When you grew older, the terrible twos hit hard. I remember shopping one day. You had a tantrum. So taking into account all the wonderful baby books I had read, I walked away from you. Scared you so much! It was your last tantrum; you were so afraid of losing me. When you turned five, I brought you a sister. I don’t think anyone could have loved a sibling like you did. Even though we gave her a lot of attention, you took it in stride. You were the little man, always there to help.
´Little League took up your time, but did not diminish your affections. So many trophies! I think they’re still packed up in the garage. Take time to open that box and relive the memories, Stephen. In middle school, you had straight A’s and music became your life. Those lessons on the trombone paid off, didn’t they? I bragged to everyone, until they started to avoid me because all I could do was talk about you. You were already growing so tall and handsome, and now your talent was shining, too. Then your dad left. I was devastated. I know you were, too, but you bottled it up inside. You were still the wonderful, sweet boy, but your grades started slipping in high school and I found out you were involved in drugs. You thought I didn’t know. I had no idea how to talk to you. So many years wasted. It made me sad then, and I am still sad now about all you had to go through to find yourself. Thank God you had your music.
´When you were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, I was so glad you called me and asked for my help. And I like to think that was the day things started turning around for you. You stopped the drugs and worked at being the man you are now. I know it’s been a long, hard road. I did my best to be there whenever you needed me. I hope you know that. I felt you did, as you were never shy to show me affection, even in front of your friends.
´I love you so much and I am so proud of the man you have become. Be yourself. Be the best you can. I will be with you always.
Stephen shot a quick glance at Kaitlin, and then wiped his eyes. He folded the letter back into its envelope and stared out the window.
Kaitlin searched her pocket for a handkerchief, searching for the strength to read the letter. She raised her head, watching Stephen stare out the window for a moment, then opened her envelope.
´My dearest Kaitlin,
´You are my favorite child. I hope that you will read this, my last letter to you, without divulging its contents to your brother. This is for your eyes only.
´You are my daughter, my last-born. I was so scared while I was carrying you deep within me, because I lost a child before you. Your dad was in Bermuda with the band, the car broke down, and I had to walk a long way, carrying Stephen in my arms. I lost your other brother that night, Kaitlin. You were my third, not second child. Your dad only wanted two children, and it frightens me to realize you might not have existed. You are my daughter, my baby.
´You are my darling.
´You were so independent, even from birth. You were induced, forced into this world, and in retaliation showed me you could take care of yourself. The moment the nurse put that pacifier in your mouth and you spat it out, I knew little Miss Independence was born. And what a ride! We zig-zagged through the years--anything I wanted, you wanted the opposite. I even tried that crazy psychological stuff: chose the opposite of what you expected me to do. You saw right through that, too. But by picking my battles, you ended up exactly where you should be. In the honor society throughout school, paid for your own college education, and defied that father of yours. You were and still are an amazing girl.
´I always told you that when you turned eighteen, it was your decision what you did with your body. I went along with everything, accepted you for what you were and encouraged you to be yourself. I have no regrets.
´But I really hate those lip rings.
´I am proud of you. Proud you are my child, my baby, my sweetheart. You are an adult now, with adult choices. You never wavered in your convictions as a child, and you don’t as an adult. You are amazing. You are beautiful. You are loved. I shall miss you so much, but I will always be with you. Just open your heart to see me. I will love you always.
Kaitlin blew her nose and looked up at her big brother framed in the window. She absently started to stuff her letter back in its envelope and realized there was an obstruction of some sort inside. Turning it over, at least thirty small pieces of paper fluttered onto her lap and fell to the floor around her. She picked one up.
´I Love Stephen.´ Then another. ´Kaitlin’s tattoo for me—lighthouse.´ One more. ´Stephen played trombone.´
“Oh my God.”
Stephen turned and smiled slightly. “What’s that, Sis?”
“Notes. They were in my envelope.”
He walked over and glanced at a few, crouching in front of her to pick up the ones on the floor. “These were in Mom’s desk drawer. Her way of remembering everything she forgot. I’m surprised you didn’t know.” He handed them to her and looked into her eyes. “Do you want to scatter them with her ashes over the lake? She would have liked that.”
Kaitlin fumbled with the small bits of paper, attempting to put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. She was silent for an eternity of moments, trying to make sense of everything in her head. “When do you want to go?” she finally asked.
He shrugged. “This weekend is fine.”
They stood and came together in a long hug. “You’re the best brother ever, you know that?” She recalled the word game Mom had taught them. “I love you.”
“I love you more.”
“I love you most.”
“I love you more than most.”
As usual, she let her brother have the last word. Separating, they silently exchanged letters and began reading.