“Hey, glad you could stop by,” Julia said, her eyes red. She looked as if she hadn’t slept in days.
“Hey, girl,” I said, giving her a warm hug. “Hey, sport,” I said to Banana who was clinging to her mother’s leg. That was unusual for her as she was an outgoing child, but it could be because of the tension in her mother. “How’s my best girl?”
“Ok,” Banana said mournfully. “Mommy’s going away this weekend and leaving me behind.”
“I know, Banana,” I said, glancing at Julia who looked as if she wanted to cry again. “But you’re staying with me and Matt, and we’re going to have tons of fun. We’ll eat lots of ice cream and go to the park….You won’t want to go home once the weekend is over.” I flashed an apologetic look at Julia because I knew you weren’t supposed to bribe a child, but she waved her hand.
“Really?” Banana said, her face brightening. “Can we eat banana ice cream? Like my name?”
“Uh, sure.” I didn’t know if they made banana ice cream but if they did, I’d find it for her.
“And Uncle Matt will play with me? I love Uncle Matt!” Banana said with an enthusiasm shared by many women.
“Yup. He said he can’t wait to see you.”
“Did you hear that, Mommy? I get to play with Uncle Matt!” Banana hugged her mother’s legs as Julia mouthed a thank you at me.
“Baby, why don’t you go put in the Shrek DVD?” Julia said, gently disengaging Banana from her leg. Banana didn’t even wait to reply before tearing off for the living room. We followed, and I watched in amazement as Banana set up the movie for herself. Kids these days were so technologically advanced at such a young age.
“Isn’t she a little too young for Shrek?” I asked in a low voice. Even though it was a kid’s cartoon, there were some adult themes that might be over Banana’s head.
“She just likes to listen to Eddie Murphy,” Julia said, laughing a little. “She thinks he’s the funniest thing ever, even if she doesn’t understand what he’s saying.” Banana was parked on the floor on her stomach five to seven feet away from the television, her eyes rapt. Her chubby little hand gripped the remote as if her life depended on it. Julia and I settled into the couch, knowing that Banana would be too into her video to pay any attention to what we were saying.
“What’s up, Jay?” I asked, using her nickname from college.
“Peter’s worse,” Julia said, her voice small. “There’s a chance he might…not make it past a few months.”
“Oh, God, Jay. I don’t know what to say.” I’d never felt more helpless than I did at that moment.
“I might be staying there longer than the weekend. If I do, I’ll come back and get Banana. That’s not the problem, however, and you know what is.” She fell silent, looking as downcast as I’d ever seen her. She was basically upbeat in her personality, and it was disconcerting to see her so gloomy. Understandable, but unnerving.
“The group,” I said immediately, knowing what was on her mind. No, not because of my skills, but because of our bond. Julia was our talent scout as far as the local scene went, and she auditioned people as well. We needed to cast Tea in the next two weeks, which meant that her defection couldn’t have come at a worse time. I was the Jill-of-all-trades which meant I could cover in a pinch, but she had a much better feel for these sort of things than did I. On the other hand, there were more important things than theater, and this qualified as one of them. “Have you told the others yet?” I asked, keeping a wary eye on Banana. Though she was engrossed in her movie, she had the uncanny ability to tune into a conversation just as it reached the juicy part.
“No,” Julia said, shaking her head. “I want you to be there when I do. You’ll be here tomorrow, right? It’s scheduled for one.”
“Yeah, I’ll be here.” I took a deep breath, knowing I was about to make an executive decision. “Jay, you do what you have to do. However long it takes, you need to be out there with Peter.”
“Peter’s my daddy!” Banana said, turning to look at us. “Why are you talking about my daddy?” Shit. There was that bat-like radar of hers.
“It’s just adult talk, baby,” Julia said, trying to smile. Banana wasn’t having it, though, and she pushed out her lower lip to show her displeasure.
“You’re talking about my daddy.” She looked as if she was going to cry, so Julia hastened on with her explanation.
“I’m going to see him this weekend. That’s all.” Wrong thing to say. I could practically hear the gears turning in Banana’s head at this information.
“I want to see him, too,” Banana said, looking mutinous. “He’s my daddy, and I haven’t seen him forever!” It probably was forever to a three-year old as she’d only seen him three times in her short life.
“Not this time, Banana,” Julia said gently. I could tell she was struggling not to cry herself, and I tried to make matters better.
“Hey, Banana,” I said brightly, using my false happy voice. “What say you and me go see what kind of ice cream there is in the freezer?”
“That sounds good, doesn’t it, Banana? We can all have sundaes.”
“Want my daddy,” Banana said, bursting into tears. Shrek was cavorting in the background with Donkey, but Banana didn’t seem to care. “Want Daddy now!” Julia seemed at a loss, and I knew I had to step in again.
“How about we call your daddy? Would you like that?” I asked, praying I was doing the right thing. Banana must have thought so because she nodded her head vigorously. Julia got up to grab the cordless, and I noted that she had Peter’s number on her speed dial.
“Hi, Peter, it’s me.” Julia listened for a minute before saying, “There’s someone here who wants to say hi to you.” Banana toddled over and grabbed the phone, pressing it to her face.
“Hi, Daddy!” Banana shouted, all traces of the petulant child gone. “I miss you! When will I get to see you again?” I could hear Peter’s voice over the phone, and it sounded weak to me. “I want to see you now, Daddy!” Banana was clutching the phone as if she never wanted to let it go, and there was a sad look on her face. “Ok, Daddy. I hope you feel better soon so you can take me to the park.” I surmised that Peter had told her he was sick and that he’d take her to Central Park when he felt better. “Maybe the zoo, too? I like animals.” Peter must have answered to her satisfaction because Banana was smiling when she handed the phone back to Julia. Julia immediately left the room so she could talk to Peter in private.
“Is my daddy really sick, Auntie?” Banana asked, looking at me with her big brown eyes. “He doesn’t sound very good.” The smile had deserted her face, leaving her looking despondent.
“Honey,” I began helplessly. I didn’t believe in lying to children to ‘protect’ them, but I also didn’t know how much to tell her. I wished Julia was here; this was her job as she was the mother! I cleared my throat and tried again. “You’re daddy isn’t feeling very good these days. He’s pretty sick. I know he thinks about you often, though. He’s a good man.”
“Does he have a cold?” Banana asked, her eyes still fastened to mine. “I know when I get a cold, I feel pretty bad. I could make him chicken soup. Mommy feeds me that when I’m sick—it makes me feel better.” She slipped her little hand into mine, looking at me with confidence. It struck me that I was the adult in the situation, and she was looking for reassurance. She wanted me to tell her that her daddy would be just fine, that he would be able to take her to the zoo soon.
“Baby, it’s worse than just a cold,” I said gently, squeezing her hand. “I’m not sure soup would hel—” I broke off what I was going to say as Julia came bustling into the room, her eyes red. Banana let go of my hand and launched herself at her mother who caught her easily.
“Mommy, Auntie says Daddy’s really sick. She says soup won’t help. Why not? It always helps me when I’m sick.” Banana looked up at her mother who had tears dripping down her face. “Mommy, why are you crying?” Banana’s voice was frightened as she’d never seen her mother cry before. “Don’t cry, Mommy!” Banana’s voice broke off as she began to wail as well.
“Sorry, baby.” Julia hugged Banana, seeming to draw warmth from her daughter. “Your daddy is very sick—that’s why I’m going to see him this weekend. Maybe you can draw him a card to make him feel better. What do you think about that?”
“Ok,” Banana said, her voice subdued. She allowed her mother to take her to the dining room. Banana sat down while her mother got her papers and crayons. Not just eight colors, either—oh, no. Julia had bought Banana what looked like hundreds of crayons. I was sure it was the deluxe set with the sharpener on the back—did they even make those any more? Banana selected a yellow crayon and started drawing, her eyes serious.
“Baby, I need to talk to Auntie Scar for a minute,” Julia said, dropping a kiss on her daughter’s shiny hair. “You keep drawing.”
“Ok, Mommy.” Banana was laboring over what appeared to be a banana, but I couldn’t really tell. Drawing wasn’t one of her strong points, but that didn’t matter. Peter would be thrilled with anything she did—as would any parent.
I followed Julia into the living room, sitting on the couch and waiting for her to speak. She sat down besides me, not saying a word. She looked so lost, I put my arm around her and pulled her to me. After her initial resistance, she allowed herself to be hugged. Her tears turned into sobs, and I just held her. I knew better than to try to say something pithy. There was nothing I could say in this situation that would make her feel better, and she would probably resent any attempt at comforting on my part other than the hug I was offering. I knew if the roles were reversed, I wouldn’t want her to say anything at all. I decided to let her talk first whenever she was ready.
“He’s really dying,” Julia said, her voice muffled. She pulled back slightly so she could look at me. From somewhere, she pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed her eyes with it. She was one of those lucky gals who didn’t dribble snot when she cried, which was just one reason to be jealous of her. “I can’t believe it.” She exhaled and sat back, so I let her go. She looked as if she’d aged ten years in the past few days, and I knew she didn’t even give a damn. “What am I going to tell Banana?”
“The truth,” I said softly. “I think she deserves to know that. Maybe not now, but when it happens….” My voice trailed off as I couldn’t put into words what I was thinking.
“Peter wants to see her one more time before…” Julia said, her voice trailing off as well. Neither of us could stomach saying again that he was dying. “I told him I wanted to go out there first to see. Do you think I’m being too protective?”
“I think you’re being a good mother.” I gave her hand a squeeze before letting go. “Besides, you haven’t seen him for some time, either, and you need time to readjust without worrying about Banana’s reaction.”
“That’s just what I told him,” Julia said. She shut her eyes, and it looked as if she was going to fall asleep.
“I better get out of here, Jay,” I said, standing up. “Want me to take the kid with me so you can get some sleep tonight?”
“No, better not. I don’t want to have to pay for too much therapy in her future.” Though the joke was feeble, I laughed as if it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. Truth be told, I was just relieved she could attempt a joke. She opened her eyes and got up as well, escorting me to the front door. Before I could leave, however, a missile hurtled itself at my legs and almost bowled me over. It was Banana, of course, and she was clutching my legs.
“Don’t go, Auntie Scar,” she begged, squeezing me tight. She must really be upset because she normally only calls me Auntie. “Stay with us, ok? I don’t want you to go.”
“Baby, your mom needs to rest,” I said, gently trying to unpeel Banana’s arms. For a girl of three, she was pretty strong, and I couldn’t break free without exerting more pressure, so I let her hold me. “You’re coming over this weekend, remember? And I’ll be here tomorrow with the rest of the group. You’ll see me tomorrow, Banana.”
“Promise?” Banana lifted her face which was wet with tears. My heart smote me at the thought of leaving the little girl, but I knew the last thing Julia needed was to have me hovering around. She’d want to spend as much time alone with Banana as possible before leaving for New York.
“Promise, Sport,” I said, kissing her on the top of her head. “You’re my best girl, remember.”
“Ok, Banana, let Auntie Scar go.” Julia tugged on Banana’s arms, and she reluctantly let go of me.
“Say hi to Uncle Matt and don’t forget the banana ice cream this weekend.” She hugged my legs one more time before retreating to her mother’s legs.
“Thanks, Scar,” Julia said, hugging me tightly. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“What time?” I asked, mentally smacking myself for forgetting. Why could I never remember when we were meeting when my memory was exemplary in every other way?
“One,” Julia said, rolling her eyes. At least my forgetfulness elicited a smile, even though it was wan at best. “I swear—you’ll be late to your own wedding.” I snorted, then left before things could get any more dicey.