Maybe you have to know darkness before you can appreciate the light.
— Madeleine L'Engle
Jennifer De Luca sits at the kitchen table and reaches for the phone, dialing the number in front of her. Although six-year-old Avery is playing in her room, the house is quiet. It is always still but sometimes, thankfully, the silence is louder than the noise in Jen's head. She listens to the phone ring in her ear. Over three years later, she still has more questions than answers but Dr. Becke says that all profound answers start with deep questions. "So much of life is made up of questions that we think matter a great deal today but are forgotten tomorrow," Dr. Becke said a few weeks ago. "But it's the life and death questions, the meaning, purpose, and value questions that matter." She looked at Jen in her office that day and smiled in a sad way that told Jen that some questions might never be answered.
The phone clicks on the other end and Jennifer follows the prompts for the main receptionist. "Dr. Schwartz's office, please," she says. She is transferred and is greeted by a recorded message. She'll have to leave a voice mail. "Hi, this is Jennifer De Luca, calling about my husband, Michael." When she hears Avery padding down the hall toward the kitchen, she cuts the message short. Avery stands in the kitchen doorway and pushes a mass of curls out of her face. Jennifer smiles, thinking how she and Michael laughed on seeing Avery's red, curly hair the day she was born.
"Where did that come from?" Michael asked, laughing. They reasoned it had to be one of their great-grandparents, whom neither had met. "You don't see many redheads," he said, reaching for his newborn. "She's a standout already."
"Who were you talking to?" Avery asks.
"No one. I was leaving a message for a woman."
Avery narrows her eyes and comes closer to her mom. "What woman?"
Jen sighs. "At the hospital."
"Yes." She gets up and opens a cupboard, changing the subject. "Would you like a snack before we leave?"
Avery shakes her head. "I'm not hungry." She's holding the angel doll she received from a stranger three and a half years ago. It's dressed in a shimmering pink dress with iridescent wings and long, flowing brown hair. Avery saw glimpses of the stranger but can't remember his face. She holds the doll tighter to her chest. She's been holding tightly to it since the stranger gave it to her, sleeping with it and bringing it in the car for the ride to and from school.
She walks to her mom and holds out her hand, opening it. Inside is Jennifer's wedding ring. "You forgot to put this on."
Jen's gray-blue eyes are rimmed in sadness. "I didn't forget, babe."
The small hand is held open in front of Jennifer. "Yes you did. You forgot it in your jewelry box." Her eyes are a mixture of confusion and pain and Jennifer feels her heart slip a little. She reaches for the ring and puts it on. "If you keep it on, you won't forget it."
Jen nods and kisses her daughter's forehead. "All right, let's go." Avery reaches for her coat and her favorite rainbow-colored scarf before getting into the car. The sky is gray and the tree branches reach into the sky like stripped nerves. A hunger for color seizes Jen. In her opinion winter hung on too long, often growing tiresome and sullen with its chilling winds and early nights. She looks in the rearview mirror and watches Avery. She's looking at the Christmas decorations lining the street and in the storefront windows but isn't seeing them. "It's as if I'm driving down a dark road," Jennifer thinks. She remembers that as a child, this time between the holidays was a sweet and anticipated gift, where time almost seemed suspended, sparkling and magical. She wonders what Avery will remember.
Avery wasn't always this way. There was a great light about her during her first three years but then life changed. Darkness covers skies and cities and, when we least expect it, on the most ordinary day, it can cover our lives. That's what Jennifer has learned.
"If we are people who pray," Jennifer's mother, Louise, said. "Then it's darkness that we often pray about."
She said that last week as she helped Jen clean her home. Louise has only a high school diploma and has worked for the last twenty-five years as an administrative assistant but is the wisest woman Jennifer knows. Jen hasn't always seen her mother this way but when she had Avery, her mother somehow became profoundly wise. Louise is quiet and never interfered in Jen and Michael's marriage, but she has always known when her daughter is weary or stressed or swallowed up in shadows.
"And what if we are people who can't pray?" Jennifer asked.
Louise thought for a moment. "Then it must be that darkness has stopped us." Jen fell into the sofa as a tear slipped onto her lap. Her mother sat next to her and pulled her close. "Things will get brighter, my love."
"When, Mom?" Jen wiped the wetness away. "When will it ever get brighter?"
Her mom shook her head. "I don't know. I don't know how many sunrises it will take but one day the sun will rise and you'll see that light still makes its way through. Even in the dark places."
Jennifer pulls into a parking spot at the front of the building and looks over her shoulder at Avery. "All set?" The little girl nods and unlatches her seat belt, sliding over and opening the door, leaving the angel on the seat. She holds Jennifer's hand and walks into Dr. Sondra Becke's office.
"Hi, Avery!" Rose says, looking up over the receptionist desk. "Would you like some juice or water while you wait?"
Avery sits on the floor and reaches for the toys that Dr. Becke keeps for her youngest patients. "No, thanks. I'm fine."
Rose smiles and looks at Jennifer. "It should only be a few minutes. She's finishing up with someone."
Jen sits on a chair by the window and reaches for a magazine she's already read. When she and Michael got married, Jennifer never imagined sitting in an office like Dr. Becke's but here she is. She's been bringing Avery here since just before last Christmas, when her troubles began. She glances up as a woman in her forties slips a credit card to Rose. In the beginning, Jennifer often wondered what was wrong with the person sitting across from her in the waiting room or exiting as she and Avery entered. Were they on the verge of divorce or fighting depression? She no longer wonders because she now knows what each of them wants. They want to know, just like her mom said, that light does make its way through the dark places.
"Hi, Avery!" Jennifer looks up to see Dr. Becke, crouching down next to Avery. Although she looks as if she's in her fifties, Dr. Becke has the vitality of someone half her age. She keeps her bobbed hair colored a soft shade of brown with blond highlights and often wears a simple, white button-down shirt with trousers. "How many could you stack today?" she asks, looking at the tower of colorful blocks that Avery has erected.
"Only seventeen and then it smashed."
Dr. Becke stands with her hands on her hips. "That's great!"
"Not really," Avery says, throwing the blocks back into their plastic tub. "My record is twenty-four."
Dr. Becke holds out her hand for Avery. "Next time," she says, meaning it. Jennifer stands and follows them into Dr. Becke's office. It's warm in green and brown tones with soft, overstuffed furniture that Avery loves. She reaches for a stuffed animal on the back of the couch, a tiger she has named Homer, and clutches him to her chest as she settles into the cushions. "It's been three weeks," Dr. Becke says, without regarding her notes. "The last time we got together you had a fall festival at school." She sits next to Avery and leans toward her, tapping her leg. "How's first grade going?"
"Good," Avery says, bending Homer's ears up and down.
"What's your favorite part about it?"
Avery lifts her shoulders and scrunches up her face. "I like my teacher and I really like when we write stories on the computer."
Dr. Becke tilts her head back on the sofa and looks up at the ceiling. While Jennifer always feels uncomfortable and on edge when she first walks into her office, Dr. Becke eventually puts her at ease. "Stories on the computer! Can you tell me about one you're working on?"
"It's about a dog named Homer."
Dr. Becke leans up, her eyes widening. "Homer? I'm sensing a theme here," she says, squishing Homer under her hand. Avery giggles and relaxes farther into the cushions. "What is happening to Homer the dog?"
"He was outside playing with his brothers and sisters when he chased a rabbit but the rabbit wouldn't stop running and he ran all the way to a street where nobody knows him."
Dr. Becke snaps her head to look at Avery. "And?"
"And that's all."
Dr. Becke slaps her thighs. "That's all? Homer's on a street where nobody knows him and you just leave him there?"
Avery laughs and bounces the tiger on her legs. "I still have to work on it."
"I should say so! You need to get Homer off that street and back with his family toot sweet! Do you know what that means?" Avery shakes her head. "It means fast! You can't leave Homer on some strange street with wayward rabbits and naughty cats. And don't get me started on all those misbehaving dogs!"
Avery smiles, shaking her head. "Maybe you should write the rest of it."
Dr. Becke and Jennifer laugh. "No! It's your story. And I want to read it when you're finished, okay?" Avery nods. Dr. Becke looks at Jen, raising her eyebrows. "So how are things?"
When Avery isn't looking, Jennifer raises her left hand and points to the ring. Dr. Becke nods. "Sleep is interrupted throughout the night," Jen says, nodding her head toward Avery. "And bed- wetting has started again."
Dr. Becke looks through her notes. "That started happening around this time last year."
Jen nods. "Then around February she just stopped. But now she's —"
Dr. Becke tugs on Homer's ear. "Are you waking up a lot?" Avery nods. "Is it a dream that's waking you?" The little girl shrugs. "When you wake up can you remember seeing a face or any images?"
"I don't remember. I just wake up. A lot of times I wake up because the sheets are wet and I'm cold."
"Thankfully, sheets are easy to wash. Now if that was Homer, it'd be a different story! Tigers pee a lot!" Avery looks at her. "It's true! That's why it's a good idea to keep Homer here ... so he won't pee in your bed."
Jennifer smiles and listens as Dr. Becke continues to draw words or feelings out of Avery. If darkness implies a world where nothing is seen very well — no clear answers or person or where she's going or even where she is now, then Jen knows more than she wants to know about it. If it suggests a sense of uncertainty or of feeling lost and afraid, then she's an expert. Each time she's in this office, she hopes for just a little light to walk out with.
"I'll see you next week," Dr. Becke says, touching her arm on the way out.
"And what about my wedding ring?" Jen whispers, holding up her hand.
Dr. Becke smiles. "It comforts her. You and Michael aren't divorced. She knows that. It might help her get through this bed- wetting episode."
Jennifer can remember those first three years with Avery when her mouth would spread wide in happiness on seeing her or Michael. She knows that kind of gladness exists in Avery; she just has to find a way to unlock it again, that's all.
Avery is quiet on the drive home. Although Jen points out the Christmas decorations on Grandon's town square and at the gazebo, Avery barely smiles. There was a time when she couldn't wait to hang the bulbs and ornaments on the Christmas tree and neither Jennifer nor Michael could even suggest that one of them place the angel on top! It's been a full week since Thanksgiving and Avery hasn't mentioned decorating a tree. Truth is, Jennifer doesn't feel like it, either, but knows she has to. "We should stop at the Christmas tree lot," she says, looking at Avery in the rearview mirror. "We could bring it home and make a day of it tomorrow!"
"I don't want to," Avery says, looking out the window.
Jennifer sighs, careful to keep her disappointment from showing. "I don't really want to, either, but it never really feels like Christmas without one."
Avery keeps her eyes on the passing buildings. "It doesn't feel like Christmas without Dad."
Jennifer takes a breath, wondering why Avery never says this sort of thing to Dr. Becke. Six months ago she got up on a bright summer day, walked to Jennifer's bedside and said, "Dads aren't supposed to leave."
People struggle every day to find a new normal. Jennifer knows that. She tires of people telling her that children are resilient or that they bounce back faster than adults from adverse circumstances. People who say that have never been with a child who's struggling to find a new way to do life. Jennifer had hoped the revelation was a breakthrough for Avery and that she would break into tears but she simply plopped down on the bed and turned on the TV.
"There's a Christmas tree lot just another mile or so down this road."
Avery looks at the back of her mother's head. "I don't want to decorate a Christmas tree. If that's your thing, then you do it."
Jennifer catches her eye in the mirror and wonders how a six- year-old can sound so grown-up. "It needs to be our thing together." Jennifer tries her best to sound cheery and confident but she knows that neither she nor Avery wants to do this.
Elhart Trees sets up residence at the far end of the strip mall each year. She can see the red banner from the stoplight. As she pulls into the parking lot she hears Avery sigh behind her. She gets out and opens the back door. "I already see one that looks like it could be perfect."
"Then you go get it and I'll wait here."
Jennifer winces. She can never outsmart her daughter.
"Looking for a tree?" Jennifer turns to see a man in his sixties wearing blue jeans, a red flannel shirt, and a Carhartt jacket. "I only cut down the sturdiest and prettiest trees I grow."
"If they're so pretty then why do you cut them down?" Avery asks from inside the car.
He leans over to look at her. "Because I can't keep all that pretty on my property. That'd be selfish. Just like if you stayed home and nobody ever saw you." Jennifer smiles and reaches for Avery's hand. "You just come get me or my grandson over there and we'll strap the tree to your roof."
"I don't want to decorate the tree," Avery says. "It's Mom's idea."
Mr. Elhart nods. "I see! You know, you would be amazed at how many people come here and tell me they are just not in the mood to decorate a Christmas tree. But do you know what happens when they have all the decorations on and they plug the lights in the first time?" Avery shakes her head. "That bad mood just disappears. It's like a magic trick! Did you know that it has been scientifically proven that you cannot sit in a room with a beautifully decorated Christmas tree and sip on a cup of hot cocoa and be in a bad mood?" Jennifer grins, listening.
"That's not true," Avery says.
The farmer shrugs. "I'm just telling you what I've read but you go home and try it and let me know."
To appease her mother and to get this over with as soon as possible, Avery marches to a tree roughly the same height as her mom and points to it. "I like this one."
"So do I!" It doesn't matter if Avery is rushing through the selection process; Jen's just glad that for a moment she's shown a little interest.
Mr. Elhart and his grandson strap it to the top of the roof and Mr. Elhart opens the door for Avery. "Still in a bad mood?" Avery nods. He brushes his hands off and whisks a few pine needles from his jacket. "I wish some of those scientists could be at your house in the next few days so that they could study you and write down the effects of decorating a Christmas tree."
"Because I know that Christmas trees always make things brighter. If they didn't, I may as well be growing something else. "
He closes the door and Jennifer thanks him, hoping that he's right. It may not be a happy or glorious time, but for a moment or two, she's hoping the shadow of unbelief and sadness will fade, if even just a bit. Maybe neither one of them will manage to believe with all their hearts but she hopes that Avery will see that she and her mom and Christmas are most worth believing in.