Saturday begins as usual with the kids screaming at the television. Sheila wriggles out from under her husband Mark's arm, draped protectively over her back, and stares at the clock, yawning and trying to focus. Just past seven. Mark murmurs and rolls over on his side to face away from her; he won't be up for at least another hour.
Sheila sits on the side of the bed, debating whether to start the day. Tomorrow is her mother's funeral, and she and Mark will be driving up to New York early; today would be a good day to take it easy. She hears Lizzie and Adam shrieking along with the cartoons in the den, delighted to be parentless for this short time in the morning. She remembers twenty years ago, when she and her friends would make the same noises, gathered around the television the morning after a slumber party. Sheila puts on her slippers and pads into the den to the accompaniment of sneaky music from the cartoons.
The phone rings while she's washing the dishes from breakfast, the usual Saturday pancakes. Mark answers it, a bit more alert after two cups of coffee.
``Hello? Oh, hi Becky, we were going to call you.'' Rebecca is Sheila's sister, three years older. ``Uh-huh, right, that's right... listen, why don't I put Sheila on the phone? Just a sec. Sheila hon, it's your sister.''
Sheila takes the phone, a towel over her wet hand. ``Hi Becky, how're things going?''
``Okay, okay, a little hectic up here getting everything ready for tomorrow, but I figure if Mom was able to put so much into Dad's funeral, we should be able to do the same for her. Well---I just wanted to make sure everything's set. You're getting here from Jersey around ten?''
``Yeah, assuming the babysitter's here on time---you know how it is.''
Becky laughs. ``I wish I did.'' She's 32 and still single. When their father Max died five years ago, their mother Louise moved into Becky's apartment. Becky insisted that it wasn't a problem, but it must have made it more difficult to have a social life.
``Well okay,'' Becky continues after a short pause, ``I've got to run, dozens more people to call, but I'll talk to you tomorrow, okay? And don't forget to bring up that chocolate cake, right?''
``Yup, I'm baking it this afternoon. It's the least I could do.'' It's their mother's recipe, always a family favorite, and it seems appropriate to make it this time. ``I really appreciate you taking care of everything, Becky.''
``It's no problem, Sheila, you know that. I'll see you tomorrow.''
``Everything set?'' Mark hugs her from behind.
``Yup, everything's set. Becky was just confirming the plans, being Becky,'' Sheila says, putting her towel-covered hands on his but not turning around.
``You okay?'' Mark has some sixth sense that allows him to detect when Sheila is thinking about something she doesn't want to talk about, and then ask her about it anyway.
``Yeah, I'm fine,'' Sheila answers quickly, and then, ``It's just going to be sad tomorrow. You know.''
Mark holds her tighter. ``She was a great mother. Just like you.''
``Mom!'' Adam runs into the kitchen. ``Lizzie's knocking over my buildings, tell her to stop.''
Sheila turns around and kisses Mark. ``Good thing I'm so great, hm?'' She dries her hands and walks into the den, Adam in front of her urging her to walk faster.
Early that afternoon, the cake's in the oven, its aroma already beginning to fill the kitchen. Sheila takes a deep whiff, and suddenly she's in her parents' house again, perched on a chair in the kitchen, asking her mother every five minutes how long it'll be until the cake's ready, feeling the agony of waiting for it to cool. Lizzie and Adam like the cake just as much as she does; they've been whining all day that it's not fair that they don't get to eat any of this one. Sheila's promised to bake another next week.
It's time for a nap; baking always makes her sleepy. Sheila walks to the living room, passing by the den on the way. Lizzie is in there, crayoning. Adam's rebuilt tower of blocks stands in one corner.
Sheila lies down on the couch by the living room windows and closes her eyes. She doesn't know how she's going to react tomorrow. She's suddenly become the oldest generation in her immediate family. How did that happen? She's only 29. The past seven years she's been both a child and a parent, and she didn't want to give up one of those roles so soon.
She can hear Adam outside on the front lawn, playing with a tennis ball, bouncing it up and down on the path running from the sidewalk to the front door. He's four years old; it's only been recently that they've let him play outside by himself. She gets up and walks to the front door; it's a nice day out, and she does want to keep an eye on Adam.
As Sheila steps outside, she sees the tennis ball rolling down the path into the street. Adam is running after it; he's already reached the sidewalk.
``Adam!'' she shouts after a moment of shock, and he turns around. ``You are not to go into the street. You know that.''
``But Mommy, there aren't any cars---''
``I don't care, Adam.'' Sheila walks past him to retrieve the ball, and walks back to him with it in her hand. She crouches down so that her head is level with his. ``Sometimes cars come and you don't know that they're coming. And they can't see you. You have to be bigger before you can go into the street. Now, you don't go into the street. Right?''
``Right, Mommy. I'm sorry.'' Adam looks scared, and Sheila realizes that she must look scared too.
She hands the ball back to him. ``I think you'd better play inside for the rest of the day. Do you want to draw? I'll draw pictures with you.''
When they reach the front door, Adam stops. ``Mommy?'' He pauses. ``I'm sorry.''
``I know you are, dear. It's okay.'' Sheila bends down and kisses him. ``Let's play.''
Lizzie's bedtime is an hour past Adam's. She usually puts up a fuss about going to bed, especially on weekends, but tonight she behaves. She seems subdued, as if she wants to fall asleep because she's not comfortable being awake.
``Are you okay, honey?'' Sheila sits down on the side of the bed after Lizzie's been tucked in. ``Are you thinking about Grammy?''
``Yeah. How come Adam and me can't go tomorrow?''
``Well, there are going to be a lot of people, and lots of things will be going on, and you and Adam would get tired, and Daddy and I have to do lots of things so we wouldn't be able to keep you company.'' Sheila runs her hand through Lizzie's hair. ``We'll tell everyone that you say hi.''
Lizzie frowns resignedly. ``I just feel bad that I won't be there to say bye to Grammy.''
``You can say bye to Grammy from anywhere, Lizzie. She's in heaven now.''
``I know. I just want to say bye along with everyone else.''
``We'll say bye for you tomorrow.'' Sheila smiles.
``You won't forget?''
``No. I know how important it is to say bye.''
``Good,'' says Lizzie, and closes her eyes satisfiedly. ``G'night.''
``Good night, Lizzie.'' Sheila bends over and kisses her on the the forehead.
Sheila walks downstairs into the living room. Mark looks up from his book. ``The kids all right?''
``Yup. Lizzie still wants to go tomorrow. Maybe she should go instead of me.'' She laughs sadly and sits down next to him on the couch, leaning against his shoulder. Mark puts an arm around her.
``It's almost as if it won't be over until tomorrow,'' Sheila continues. ``All those weeks she was in the hospital, and we were just waiting. And when she did die, it was like nothing much had changed. But tomorrow, with all those people... I think maybe I haven't realized she's gone yet.''
``I think you know,'' Mark says softly, and strokes her hair. ``Don't worry, things'll be okay.''
``Yeah,'' Sheila whispers, so softly that she's just mouthing the word.
Sheila wakes up in the middle of the night. They'll be leaving for New York in about seven hours. The curtains are open, and outside the streetlights are stronger than the moon. Suddenly the scene is brighter for a moment as a car passes by with its headlights on. Then it's gone. Mark is sleeping soundly next to her, breathing loudly, almost snoring. It suddenly seems too warm under the covers, and Sheila quickly slides out of bed, puts her slippers on, and stands by the window. The hedges surrounding the yard are black; the grass looks almost blue in the light.
She quietly opens the bedroom door and slips out into the hall. Lizzie is a big girl and sleeps in her room with the lights off and the door closed, but Adam's door is open and the light from inside his room is enough to illuminate the hall. Sheila walks into his room and looks at his sleeping form. Adam sleeps on his side, just like his father. Tonight he's curled up more than usual, but the look on his face is beatific, the completely innocent look of a child who knows that his parents can protect him from anything, and he needn't worry. Sheila smiles. She hasn't had that look for years. She'd like to have it again.
The stairs are a little creaky as she descends them, but everyone else in the house is sound asleep. The living room is almost bright enough to read in, light coming in from the bay windows and casting tree-shaped shadows on the white rug. Sheila unlocks the front door and steps outside. Even in just her nightgown, she feels comfortable; there's a slight breeze, but it is a summer night. From here she can see that the grass is really green after all. She walks slowly out to the sidewalk. Looking back, she sees their bedroom window, but she can't make out anything inside the room.
Sheila stands there on the sidewalk for a few minutes, looking at the stars, the trees, the street. Then she looks both ways, just as she's always been taught, and walks into the street, right in the middle of it. She sits down on the ground, in the middle of the road there, knees up and arms around her legs. Just for a second.