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On the first day of spring, it rains and my daughter Julia refuses to leave her room. She stays buried beneath a blanket and ignores my weak attempts at being a good father. Of course, there was a time when she would have bounded from her bed and out into a soft rain, but she’s older now – and upset with me – which is fair, maybe more than fair. Because she knows now.
And although I shouldn’t, I allow myself the small comfort – if my daughter, when she’s not mad, normally enjoys the rain, then, according to the lab’s brochure, my wife, at some point in her own childhood, did too. That same adorable girl would have stomped through puddles and spun and enjoyed a gentle rain falling on her shoulders – long before two failed drug trials and one medically-induced coma made it so she couldn’t open her eyes.
Lately, though, when I do manage a visit to the hospital, which is less and less, it feels like muscle memory, the well-rehearsed ritual of a would-be widower stuck in limbo. I drift through the motions, like an empty car through fog, holding my wife’s hand without realizing I am in the room. My mind inevitably wanders to my daughter’s day to day – does Julia have soccer after all this rain? Are the Andersons okay to carpool? And without realizing my hand is touching her lip, I wipe the spit from the corner of Jean’s mouth while planning out how best to get Julia to and from practice.
Late into Jean’s coma, but early after Julia’s arrival, I would pay the babysitter double for another hour away where I could sit next to Jean and tell her about my day, about how I wasn’t sure about the decision, but I was trying to do right by her. I’d sit there and argue with her, myself, all the same people who couldn’t tell me if what I was doing was what she would have wanted. I tried to convince myself by telling Jean how the news continued to report the rapid successes of the same cloning agencies we’d invested in after college, but never imagined ourselves using.
But Julia grew, and in a way, so did Jean again. Now it’s harder to motivate myself to make the trip downtown when it feels like I have the real Jean at home who needs me more than the one asleep in a hospital bed. Now, when I visit, I can only whisper “I love you” and wipe the sweat from her brow and hold her hand, although she has no idea I am there. And while I sit beside Jean’s bed, I tell her stories about what Julia is doing, trips to the city, the new Reading Olympics challenge, and a part of me hopes Jean knows she is still alive in this world living the way she should.
As for my daughter Julia, maybe last Monday, I could have convinced her to come out and save as many drowned worms as the world had regurgitated, but not now. Now, I can only remember what she once looked like, stuffing her pockets full of worms so she could carry their wiggling bodies back to the wet earth, chanting, “live, live, my earthlings!” Childish and naive maybe, but it was, and is, an aspect of Julia that I love, a part of her I wish would forgive me and pull back the blanket, open the door, and hold my hand one more time and say, “Let’s save them.”
But I’m afraid I’ve done enough saving, or trying to save her, although I’m not sure I’d change what I did. I know Julia wants me to confess at her door, to press my forehead against it and cry and swear that I was out of my mind with grief, which is why she found what she found, but I’m not going to – because, cards on the table, I knew exactly what I was doing when I filed the consent forms to clone Jean. I understood that this day would come, that she might never love me as a father or call me a friend.
In front of Julia’s bedroom door, I leave simple offerings, resting a small plate of french toast on the carpet next to a pair of rain boots. The Target price tag hangs from the right boot, evidence of my willingness to go the extra mile, but when I press my cheek against the door and whisper, “they’re the yellow ones that shine like they’re already wet,” my daughter only groans.
I fail to mention that they’re the same boots I said no to the other day at the local Target. At the time, I didn’t have a reason for refusing other than the boots didn’t seem like something I could imagine Jean wearing, but now I’m wondering whether the boots are another aspect I missed, something I never knew or noticed about my wife, that she was the type of woman who – I stop myself, that Julia is the type of girl, I correct myself,who can rock a pair of retro rain boots.
I tap my knuckles against the door and hope she’ll open, but Julia is too smart for my crap. She always was, and she is now, but I’m desperate to explain myself, so I knock a little harder and tell her, “Hey, listen, I know, I know what it might seem like or maybe I don’t, but listen, you’re upset, really upset, and that’s fair. More than fair, but can we talk?”
Julia answers with silence, which, I guess, is what I deserve. It’s the same thing she would have done once upon a time if I didn’t let her eat peanut butter from the jar, long before she found a certain folder filled with signed receipts for early stage clone delivery.
And since my home office looks as though Julia gutted it with an angry fork, it goes without saying she has discovered the medical file on Jean, the woman who she thought was her dead mother, but probably now realizes is only my sick wife currently sleeping in a hospital forty minutes away.
Julia’s long silence is exactly what my wife Jean would have done, or at least I suspect it is, given we never encountered these unusual circumstances. But the lab I selected, unlike some of its cheaper competitors, had a nearly ninety-four percent success rate for growing clones identical in mind and body when nurtured in a control environment similar to the original. Which is why I am not surprised by Julia’s sustained isolation.
Before Jean became sick, she was quick to go radio silent, too, ghosting me before she was almost one. If I pissed her off, I’d scroll through my texts all night with nothing from her. She’d completely shut me out. At best, I might get her to acknowledge me if I ordered garlic naan and chicken tikka masala from her favorite place on the other side of town. I’d leave it outside her apartment door, a simple offering. It was always from that restaurant called Indian Garden, but now is some new lousy noodle-fusion place where people half my age go to pretend things never change. But the Indian Garden place, that was her favorite, and nightmare to get takeout from during any time of the day. Of course, that was before she got sick, before the experimental treatments, bills, and medicinal creams gently rubbed in small circles across her neck to prevent whatever illness beneath her skin didn’t rise up and turn her into an open sore of pain. I never wanted that for her, which is why I have Julia, another chance for Jean – not me – for the woman who, up until last night, Julia had thought of as her late mother.
Something hits the door with a thud, and I hear a muffled, “I hate you. You’re not my – I’m not, I’m not me,” which is half true. She knows that now, that I’m not her father, but what she doesn’t know is that hidden inside the left boot outside her door is a twice-folded note, explaining how sorry I am for what happened to her, for what happened to Jean, for this, how she is more her than the woman laying in the hospital, how boarding school will be better than being here with me, how everything is wrong and I’m not right and everything, everything inside of me is sad, and I’m selfish and awful and it’ll be like losing her all over again. I am losing her all over again, and I don’t know what else to do.
I’m losing. Her. I don’t know.
I don’t know what to do.
I don’t know
what I am doing anymore.
There is so much I want to explain, things I didn’t think I’d have to say until later or maybe never, but now I’m sounding out the words, letting the syllables stick to my teeth and hang there on the tip of my tongue.
And I can’t swallow. I can’t cry. I can’t.
Tomorrow, I’ll stand in front of her suitcase and fold her small shirts, one by one, plant them inside, layering her outfits like spreading soil over a garden until there is no sign of the seed beneath, of her, no Jean, no Julia, nothing left once I zipper it close, nothing to remind me she was ever here until one day, when she has grown on her own, she can stand in some far away dormitory and decide if she wants to remember me.
Outside, the spring rain continues to fall, splashing down onto our long, winding, black driveway, and I allow myself a new comfort, the image of a flowing river leading me back to a time before all this, a river I could slip into and be carried away, losing myself before I lose her all over again.
Inside, there is more of the same, awkward silence and confusing, and there will be for some time, until Julia is Jean and Jean is Julia far from me and I am okay – okay with growing old and alone with what I’ve done to save a life worth loving – okay with her door finally opening, okay with Julia stepping outside of her room, tilting her head up, but somehow still avoiding my eyes. Okay with her looking out the window and away from me – okay with her hugging me and saying, “I love you, but I hate you, too.”