Paige’s thirteenth birthday was, for Elizabeth, the most memorable. She made attempts at hiding it, but there was genuine glee in Elizabeth’s face as she watched Paige open the gift she had so carefully picked out for her weeks prior. Philip, having received strict instructions earlier that morning, had stayed in the mall foodcourt with the kids while she made her way to the department store to purchase the present, not caving an inch when pestered with questions from her children about why she needed to go shopping alone and what it was she was buying.
“Nothing that concerns either of you two right now,” was her short reply, a hint of a smile on her lips as she walked away from their ice-cream-cone-riddled table.
Philip had rarely seen her this worked up about anything sentimental and it piqued his curiosity as to why Elizabeth seemed suddenly deeply invested in celebrating this year of Paige’s life. He knew better than to ask, however.
The four of them now sat at their dining room table, remnants of Paige’s birthday dinner still piled high in the sink; they could wait, just this once, until after gifts. Paige thoughtfully opened a sweater and book from her parents, and a childish makeup kit from Henry, though she knew the funds to support such a gift had truly come from their father. In true Jennings fashion the gifts were limited to the three basic modifiers: One thing you need, one thing you want, one thing from which you can learn. While their friends sat buried in gifts on birthdays and Christmas day Paige and Henry had long-ago become accustomed to much less fanfare during such events, always hoping for more than the three allotted gifts but never daring to hope too much. They would never know how much convincing it had required of Philip to get Elizabeth to concede to even this gift allowance, as she felt with honest conviction that one gift per occasion was sufficient and, she reminded him constantly, considering the school supplies, sports equipment, family games, new clothes and junk foods purchased randomly throughout the year, was far more than she ever received in the span of twelve years, let alone twelve months.
So it was with genuine interest that Paige and Henry’s eyes widened as Elizabeth, face aglow, now slid a small gold box, gift number four, toward Paige. Elizabeth’s hand lingered on the gift a moment before she spoke, eyes trained on her daughter.
“My mother bought me something similar to this when I turned thirteen.” That was all she offered, nothing more. Nothing emotional to tug at the heartstrings and no true insight of any great value. But the expression Elizabeth wore when she said it, the softness in her face and lightness of her voice would have led anyone to conclude, without question, that she was telling the truth, a truth she would have never permitted herself to share had it not meant a great, great deal to her. Of course Paige knew nothing of her true grandmother, or of the sacrifice her grandmother would have made to purchase anything of value or sentiment for her daughter in the throws of poverty and destitution.
But Philip knew and Elizabeth now felt his gaze on her, causing her to shift in her chair uncomfortably. Fighting the urge to look in his direction Elizabeth targeted her eyesight on Paige’s hands as she opened the box given to her. Pulling her hand directly up Paige removed a simple gold chain with a small heart-shaped pendant dangling from the end. It was nothing ostentatious, but Paige held it against her palm as if it were the most precious of necklaces known to man, her eyes shining.
Out of the corner of her eye Elizabeth saw Henry slump back into his chair with a huff, clearly disappointed at the contents of the box. She saw Philip place a knowing hand on their son’s head and tousle his hair, smiling crookedly and giving him a quick wink as the girls sat in silence at the other end of the table.
For as much as she would ever allow it Elizabeth looked as if she was going to burst from excitement. Something beyond motherly instinct had awoken with a jolt inside her and she wrung her hands together harshly under the table to give an outlet for her frantic energy. She watched closely as Paige’s small fingers danced over the pendant, outlining every curve and taking a closer look at the delicacy of the chain. Paige was a sentimental child and, with this gift, it appeared Elizabeth had struck the right chord.
Finally, unable to stand it any longer, Elizabeth spoke. “Do you like it?”
Paige’s eyes lifted up and met her mother’s, a maturity visible in her face that neither of her parents were quite ready to accept. “I love it. Thank you, mom.” The use of “mom,” so mature sounding, brought up an ache in Elizabeth for the days when her daughter only referred to her as “mama,” and Elizabeth realized how grown up Paige suddenly seemed, bringing a tightness to Elizabeth’s chest that caused her hands, folded in her lap under the table, to grip one another more tightly out of sight of the rest of the room.
All business, Elizabeth made a move to shut down any further emotional outbursts that may be lurking under the surface, assumedly from Philip. “You want help putting it on?”
Paige smiled and held out the necklace toward her mother, who stood and moved behind her and gently swept Paige’s hair away from her neck. Drawing the necklace up her small shoulders Elizabeth hooked the latch behind Paige’s neck, letting it fall into place. She moved to return to her seat, but froze in place when she saw the expression on Philip’s face. Elizabeth met his eyes, for once not irrationally angry or disgusted by the doe-like look he gave her in return. He smiled, a silent communication passing between them to affirm how much this moment meant to Paige, that Elizabeth had done well, that Paige would remember this moment for the rest of her life.
Elizabeth smiled in return, her hands still on Paige’s shoulders when her legs, as if rooted to the ground, began to feel made of pure steel. She looked down, watching in anguish as the floor stretched out slowly before her, her surroundings taking on a hazy feel. The edges of the room began to blur and Philip’s voice sounded far off and muffled when he called her name. She met Philip’s eyes, a blank, empty expression staring back at her as her vision darkened and he called her name a second time. Frantic, she tightened her grip on Paige’s shoulders, screamed for her, desperate for either she or Henry to look at her one last time as they faded into darkness, Philip’s voice now coming sharply into her ears.
“Elizabeth,” he tried a third time, a gentle hand softly shaking her shoulder.
She came to in a rush, years of training in physical composure failing her as her body jerked awake. She was quiet, despite wanting to scream at the realization that it was a dream, now faded away and her children were far beyond her reach. Philip felt the jolt and knew she was awake, his hand moving to brush a few sweaty strands of hair away from her neck, then back to her shoulder to lightly rub his thumb across her skin. Elizabeth lay still, her eyes open but staring at the wall. After taking several deep breaths to steady her emotions she raised a hand and reached for Philip’s, stilling his movement.
“Another dream?” His tone was a mixture of sympathy and understanding.
Elizabeth remained silent.
“You were shaking again,” he paused, deciding to not finish his explanation with, “Called out for Paige.”
The dreams started shortly after they had moved from Moscow, becoming more vivid with each passing month. At first Elizabeth had practically willed them to stop, refusing to allow the emotions they brought up to leave lingering affects after she had awoken. She would rub her face with the pads of her fingers, sigh frustratedly and move on with her day, stopping her mind from the temptation to wander back to the images she saw while she slept. But as the nights dragged on this mode of coping proved to become more and more challenging. Stronger memories were replayed in her dreams, visions so real she could smell the scent of Paige’s baby shampoo as her world abruptly went from kissing the top of her infant daughter’s head to laying in an unfamiliar room worlds away from her now-grown children.
Philip recognized Elizabeth’s pain early on, her avoidance of alcohol before bed knowing it would make her dream life more active, her attempts to stay up later, not to mention the sound of her labored breathing or face twisted in pain while she slept. Most nights would start with her closely clinging to him under the covers, desperate to remain grounded to reality as she drifted off, and would end with her on the opposite side of the bed curled into a tight ball with tension strung taunt throughout her body. Her mornings almost always consisted of waking with a jolt from her own accord or being pulled from her dreams by Philip’s gentle, calming voice.
Elizabeth’s body tightened momentarily, her eyes closing wearily. She forced her dry throat to swallow and relaxed her muscles, allowing her body to unfurl slowly as she rolled onto her back. Of all mornings she had particularly dreaded waking up to this one.
“Do you” she paused, trying to keep her voice even, “remember Paige’s thirteenth birthday?”
Philip calculated his response. Rarely, in the almost year since they had left America, had Elizabeth shown any interest in talking about their children. He saw from the pained expression in her face during their countless debriefs that it was just too soon, and while he would have gladly held her and cried over their loss of family, she simply could not handle it. Able to compartmentalize in a way Philip would never understand he now worried that this separation of her feelings from her reality was damaging her in ways he could not help repair. Now, having been given permission to discuss at least Paige, he tread lightly.
“I remember.” He smiled as the memories came to the forefront of his mind. He eased his head back down on to his pillow, tucking one arm underneath it. “She wanted sloppy joes for dinner.”
Elizabeth exhaled a laugh, “That’s right.” She turned that detail over in her mind, as if rummaging through a box of memories only to stop frequently, pull one out and examine it carefully. She had forgotten about the child-like request for sloppy joes and how fervently Henry supported Paige’s request. “Henry was so excited about that.”
She reached for Philip’s hand, laced her fingers through his, knowing just the sound of their son’s name would cause him pain. He watched as she stared at the ceiling, her breathing rhythmic and mind somewhere far off.
“Is that what you dreamt about? Her birthday?” His voice was cautious, caring.
Elizabeth was silent, her eyes closing.
“Makes sense that you would dream about that today,” he offered gently.
Her nod was barely noticeable, as if admitting it made the pain more real.
“Paige will -”
“I lied to her about that necklace,” she cut him off, confession overflowing out before she could stop it.
Philip’s brow furrowed, desperately trying to recall the reference. Failing, he questioned, “That one with the heart?”
More resolved than willing to be in it now she clarified, “You said it would mean a lot to her if she received a gift that was just from me that year.” She waited. “That turning thirteen was significant and I should give her something special. As her mother.”
Philip remembered, but kept quiet, unsure of where she was headed.
“I lied. Told her my mother bought me something like that on my thirteenth birthday. I thought,” she faltered, having already regretted saying anything but now feeling it was too late to go back. “I thought it would make it more special if it was something that my mom did for me, too.” She turned her face to meet his, her expression blank, “My mother never bought me anything like that. She would have never-” words finally failing her Elizabeth looked back at the ceiling, closing her eyes against the tears she knew would come if she had kept her gaze on her husband.
“I wonder what she did with that necklace,” Elizabeth choked out, her voice barely audible and thick with guilt.
Philip considered her choice of words. I wonder what she did with that necklace. Elizabeth wasn’t the slightest bit curious if Paige had kept it. She was confident that, true to her word, Paige would never forgive her mother, and that once-sentimental trinkets, for both children, would surely be tarnished to painful reminders of how their family had been torn in two at the hands of their own parents. Paige would have no reason, or desire, to hold on to something that simply served to remind her of the lie her parents played out for the majority of her life.
While Philip was less sure than Elizabeth of the bitterness that may have taken residency in Paige’s heart he knew better than to try to placate Elizabeth’s fears or doubt with words of attempted comfort. Realizing there was nothing for him to offer her Philip squeezed her hand tightly. He watched her, noticed the change in her expression, the tightness in her face straining as she fought to keep herself together. Her breathing picked up speed and he saw her chest constrict as a single tear rolled down her cheek and toward her ear. Philip’s gentle hooked finger wiped it away before it could encourage another and he leaned forward to kiss the exposed skin on her shoulder, then her cheek, a silent reminder that they would get through the day, that they would survive this pain, that it was okay to feel this way, especially today.
He knew she knew what today was, the stupid fucking numbers staring them in the face every time they walked by the calendar in their kitchen. Neither of them had dared write it on there, as if they needed to be reminded of the day their daughter was born. Silently dreading it as it approached Philip knew Paige’s birthday would result in an unbearable day for Elizabeth and, now that it was here, he was unsure how to help her grieve. He remembered with trembling the horrendous heartache they both felt on Henry’s most recent birthday, and had been dreading the day Paige’s birthday came around since. Nothing would have ever prepared them for the brokenness of celebrating the birth of their children from the other side of the world, wondering who they were spending it with, who was looking out for them, if they thought of their parents with any fondness on these days. It was a pain neither of them could put into words if they tried.
Philip, desperate to talk it through, took a moment to weigh his options. He debated whether or not to address it, force her to get it out in the open and deal with it, as he would have preferred. But he knew she would loathe that, so he settled on silence, allowing her to take the lead however she saw fit.
Elizabeth lay still, as if waiting to see if Philip was going to broach the subject and attempt to talk it out as usual. Deciding it was safe when several moments passed of him saying nothing she turned her body to face his, pulling their joined hands up to rest against her chest and ducked her head close under Philip’s chin. She knew him well enough to know he had made a conscious decision to remain quiet in this moment and was deeply grateful for it. Philip’s free arm slid under her shoulders, pulling her close as he listened to the sound of her breathing, yet again in awe of how quickly she could will her emotions into submission.
Elizabeth allowed the fondness of the memory from her dream to course through her veins for a moment longer before it turn to pain. Never would she have thought those mundane moments to be something so cherished but now, here on the day of her daughter’s 23rd birthday she found her mind unconsciously replaying memories of its own accord. “Next week will be easier,” she told herself, “Once Paige’s birthday is over the dreams will stop.” A lie not even the most gullible person would have believed, but she thought she’d test it out and see if it provided comfort.
It failed. “But then it will be Thanksgiving. One year since we saw them. Then Christmas. Then Henry’s birthday. Then Paige’s. Then Thanksgiving…” Her mind wandered wearily down the list of painful anniversaries they would have to endure year after year. Days once marked with excitement on a calendar now neither parent would acknowledge verbally unless forced to. Elizabeth knew that, for the rest of her life, most months of the years would carry a date when she would be reminded that she willingly abandoned one child only to have the other then abandon her.
If not for Philip she feared the pain would have swallowed her whole.
Feeling her relax Philip kissed the top of her head before moving to rise. “I’ll make breakfast.”
Elizabeth nodded and watched as he exited their room. Her eyes drifted back toward the bed, connecting with the simple gold band on her right hand, a physical reminder that, despite it all, Philip would be her chosen family. That, if nothing else, she had him.
It offered little peace on a day usually set aside to celebrate Paige but, in light of all she had given up, it was enough. It was with great confidence that Elizabeth knew, now beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Philip was enough.