“Kayla, wake up! Kayla! Kayla!!” I feel a hand on my shoulder and my whole body shaking before I hear the sound of my own voice screaming, screaming louder than I knew I was capable. Brandon pulls me to him and I collapse, sobbing in his arms. It’s nearly 3am and I just had the dream. It’s the same one I’ve been having for almost a year, where I find myself in a graveyard surrounded by all my siblings, my Mom standing off to the distance smiling at us, we’re reunited, I’m hugging Josiah. My stepdad and his new wife appear and they’re ripping my brother from my arms. Josiah’s big green eyes filling with tears flood my vision. I scream at them until my lungs give out, until all my siblings disappear, until I wake up. Brandon doesn’t even have to ask. He just holds me until I cry myself back to sleep.
One Year Earlier
“I just don’t think it’s healthy for you to force them to call her Mom,” it was my last attempt at pleading with him to reconsider. “They’ve only known her a couple of months and Mom has not been gone that long. This will confuse them.”
“That’s not your call to make, Kayla.” He spoke in his usual authoritative tone. Even over the phone I could hear the smirk on his face. I heard an unfamiliar voice distantly on the line, then Bill again, “Becky is the only Mom they need to know.”
Just then my heart shattered into a million pieces. I couldn’t imagine how Mom would feel if she were here to hear this. I silently admitted defeat. “Will you put Hope on?”
“She’s, umm, not here right now.”
“Bill, I just heard her talking in the background.”
“No, she’s not here. You must’ve heard Hannah. Do you want to talk to her again?”
“Why aren’t you letting me talk to Hope?” I was exhausted of his lies. He wasn’t letting me talk to my sister, but would not admit it or tell me why. I had been in Jacksonville for 5 months. When I first moved down, I talked to the kids regularly, at least once a week. They would send me colorful notes, school projects, and drawings. Hannah sent one of us together, holding hands, me in a purple dress and her in a pink one with a thought bubble over her head that said, “I miss you Sister.” Ever since Becky entered their home, the conversations were less and less frequent and the surprise mail was no more. The last box I got contained nothing but a vase of fake roses that had belonged to my Mother. I was happy to embrace it, to run my fingers over the curves of the ivory and magenta glass she once touched, but I also knew it meant he was ridding the house of her, eradicating her from their memories.
“I’m not keeping you from talking to her. She’s not here.” This was the same story he kept repeating. There was no point in arguing with him about it for a 10th time. When I hung up the phone I let out a long sigh and my eyes stung from the dammed-up tears.
Over the next few weeks, Brandon and I reconnected. We split amicably before I moved south but recently made contact again. The hope of finding friends and a fresh start in Jacksonville had quietly faded. The one friend I knew wouldn’t make time for me and the other was in the Navy and recently sent away. I was alone, and not the good kind of alone, I was depressingly lonely. Brandon comforted me as best he could over the phone, but that harrowing isolation and my concern for the kids sent me right back to Ohio. There just wasn’t anything in Florida worth staying for; and I’d never forgive myself for not being there for them during all these life transformations. So I packed my things into my car and drove straight up I95.
The first month I was back in Ohio I spent frantically applying to every job posting I could. My aunt and uncle were generous enough to let me stay with them until I could find a job and an apartment. On a particularly cold and snowy January day, I was excited to be heading out for my first interview when I met the mailman at their front door. He was carrying two letters from my Stepdad and his new wife, one addressed to me and one to my aunt & uncle. My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach, the way it does when your body knows before your head something awful is about to happen. Bill had been skillfully evading me since I moved back, not answering my calls or letting me see or speak to not only Hope, but now also Hannah and Josiah. I ripped open the envelope and a few sentences in, I saw my whole world crumbling before me.
“At this time, we now want to sever all ties and communications between you and your siblings for this season in our lives. When we deem that this season is over, we will let you know at that time. However, at this time, we no longer want you to contact Hope, Hannah, or Josiah, buy them gifts, or in any way be a part of their lives. (This includes contacting them in any possible way, via phone, internet, cards, at church, school events, etc.)”
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. I lost it, sobbing uncontrollably, gripping my stomach in agony and gasping, fighting hard for each breath. I’d already lost my mom, now I’d also lost my siblings. I had no doubts the envelope waiting for my aunt and uncle contained the same carefully crafted message. In my letter they cited the reason for this decision as the time I told Bill the kids shouldn’t have to call her Mom. They depicted it as if I had some kind of mental breakdown, called it an outburst and said I did not respect them as the children’s parents and so they had no choice but to cease contact with me. “We have sought God for the last month regarding this situation and this is what we feel He is telling us to do. We feel comfortable with this and our spirits and our Christian mentors and friends are aware and comfortable with our decision.”
How could they possibly be comfortable with this? Why would anyone think this is okay? I’ve been in their lives since day one. We are their family! It’s not as if we are drug addicts or murderers. We’ve never endangered the children or put them in any kind of unsafe environment. They’ve known this woman for mere months and somehow she’s more family than me? The reel in my head wouldn’t give. It just didn’t make any sense. And yet, somehow, I had felt this coming. He leaned on us hard after Mom died, to help take care of them, to buy their school supplies, to keep them clothed, to make sure they had a present to open on their birthdays. But ever since Becky waltzed into his life a few months prior, everything had changed. He was pushing us away slowly over those months, culminating in this final, nearly fatal blow.
“We want to reiterate that this decision of how we want to proceed in the raising of our children is nonnegotiable and it is not open for discussion.” I was confounded, infuriated, and breathless. My mind was going a million miles a minute. Our children, OUR children?! Please! I changed their diapers. I sang them to sleep. I wiped their baby tears when they fell. I’ve been loving them since before they were born. Who the hell does she think she is?! My thoughts were a jumbled mess. I cried out loud to my mother, willing her to reappear. I had long since given up faith of her coming back, but still in desperation, begged her to return. “If there was ever a time for you to rise from the dead, this is it Mom,” I howled, before experiencing the embarrassment of my pathetic request and letting out a violent cry, my body folding into itself. My fingers were tangled in my hair, forcefully pressing, my nails digging deeper into my scalp. I could feel anguish and anger intertwining, taking up root in my core, eating through my will to live.
Finally, I steadied my breath. My hands lingered on the soft leathery couch before I pushed myself up into an unsteady standing position. My legs shook beneath the new weight I was carrying. Five minutes ago I was dressed and ready for this interview. Now my shirt was covered in snot, my face was wet and red, and my eyes were black, smeared with makeup. I crumpled the letter into my pocket and composed myself as best I could before forcing myself into my car. I was 15 minutes early to my interview. After I parked, the tears poured out again. I called Krystal. I told her about the letter and I lost control all over again. She hadn’t received one… yet. I’m so glad hers came later because I needed her in that moment. I needed her to be okay enough to tell me to wipe my face and walk into that interview. I wept to her, “how can I? how can I go in there and pretend this isn’t happening, that I haven’t just lost everything?” She replied sympathetically, “because you have to, Kayla.”
She was right. I had easily applied for 50 jobs and this was the only one I’d heard from in a month. I had no money left in my bank account. I didn’t have the luxury of falling apart, of passing this opportunity up. I used a scratchy napkin from my glove box to wipe away the excess makeup and gook that had accumulated around my eyes. I blew my nose into it which exemplified the pounding in my head. I looked at my puffy red face in the rearview mirror and said, “you cannot afford to mess this up.”
Somehow, I shoved everything aside and survived that interview. I don’t remember anything about it. I cannot picture the room I was in, cannot remember the scents or sounds, do not remember a single word I uttered, but I made it through. Afterwards, I crumbled into the front seat of my car and wailed in pain. I couldn’t drive myself home. I called Brandon to pick me up. The man who conducted my interview called me not even 2 hours after I walked out. I got the job.