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Coming Up for Air


There are both wonderful and awful moments in a woman's life. Many of them, really. Standing in a white dress in front of family and friends, vowing to forever love the handsome man in front of me, is on top of my wonderful list. Then years later, standing in the receiving line at my mother's funeral and pulling away from that same man's touch because I knew I didn't --- couldn't --- love him anymore is more than awful. It's tragic.

In these pages, I will try to wrap words around all of the tumultuous, confusing emotions, attempt to make sense out of what at the moment feels senseless.

Mother's Funeral

On the day of my mother's funeral there was only one type of flower: lilies. Everywhere. There were too many to count. With all the flowers in the world, the millions of blossoms and buds, you'd have thought that someone would have brought another sort.

I know what the lily means in the language of flowers: innocence, purity, and beauty. But this is not why the church overflowed with lilies. For twelve generations, or maybe longer, the firstborn daughters of firstborn daughters in our family are named Lillian. I understood why mourners brought these blooms, but God, the aroma was overwhelming, drowning me in cloying sweetness.

Sadie, my best friend, stood next to me in the funeral receiving line. "Ellie," she whispered.

"What?" I leaned closer to her.

"I wonder if there are any lilies left in all of Atlanta. This is insanity."

"It still wouldn't be enough for her," I said.

Sadie laughed in the quiet manner of churchlike respect. "No," she said, "it would not have been enough."

My husband, Rusty, stood on my opposite side with his hand on the small of my back, and our nineteen-year-old daughter, Lil, was to the left of him. Sadie and I attempted to hold in our laughter, like the nine-year-old girls we once had been in the chapel at private school instead of the forty-seven-year-old women we were. The misplaced amusement bubbled up from places forbidden and grabbed our guts and throats with the release of hilarity. I don't know why laughter comes at moments it should be banned; I don't know why it rains when we least need it or why love leaves when we most need it. But there we were: laughing at death.

"I bet," I said as I stifled the rising and irresponsible laughter, "everyone thought they were being original and thoughtful, sending lilies to Lilly's funeral."

In her attempt to stop a choked chuckle, Sadie snorted, and it was then that we broke into full laughter over something that was only vaguely funny or maybe not funny at all. But just the way you find yourself wanting something worse when you know you can't have it, we were unable to stop laughter in the one place it is inappropriate --- the middle of a receiving line at Mother's funeral.

Rusty glanced at me, which for a reason I still don't understandmade me laugh harder. He reached out to touch me, and I pulled away. My daughter looked at me as if I'd lost my mind, and I wondered if maybe I had. Sadie squeezed my hand, and we returned to normal --- our mournful expressions intact.

Of course, nothing about Mother's death was funny. It was sudden and awful and left our small family bereft and confused. I've discovered the finality of death in this: It remains unchanged and unmoved by loneliness, regret, or grief. My need for Mother, for some kind of redemption or reconciliation, came fresh with every thought and reminder of her absence. Missing her was the ache with which I woke and then fell into restless sleep knowing.

The funeral was a huge event, and Mother would have been proud to see how many people came, considering we're a small family. Mother is an only child, and Dad has only one brother, Uncle Cotton --- an elusive figure in my life, an author who is constantly traveling and in exotic locales, a writer about whom Mother rolled her eyes as if writing were a wasteful career that didn't even deserve a comment (much as any career in the "arts" is wasteful, which is an odd opinion for a woman on the High Museum of Art board). But that's my mother --- contradictions seamlessly fitting inside one another like the babushka dolls my grandmother brought me from her trip to Russia. Mother's best friend, Sadie's mother, Birdie, walked through the crowd, making order of the crowd and the event as smoothly as if Mother were there doing it herself.

Our web of friends caught Dad, Lil, Rusty, and me, cradling us with their grief and respect. There were newspaper articles and monuments, trees planted, and a bench placed in front of the High Museum.

The last woman in line then approached us, holding a single lily in her hand as if she were a bride going down the aisle. I thought I'd start laughing again but found I was finished. The day was almost over, and I was lulled into that certainty that I'd done well, that we had made it through the worst of it.

"Ellie?" A voice behind me said my name. Softly. Perfectly.

A hand fell on my shoulder, and then I saw his face. Twenty years later, minutes and hours and days rearranged to allow me to see him again as if time hadn't passed at all. Mostly I saw his eyes: almond shaped and kind, brown with green underneath, as if the eyes had meant to be the deep color of forest ferns and then at the last minute changed their mind.

I reached for Rusty's hand to steady myself, but he was making large gestures while talking to his buddy Weston and didn't feel me groping for firm grounding.

Then I saw Hutch's smile, a little crooked and higher on the righthand side.

He hates being late.

I smiled at him. "Wow, hello, Hutch O'Brien." My voice held firm and fast, and for this I was grateful.

He is witty with a cutting sarcasm.

He loves his eggs fried with buttered toast.

There is a scar on his cheek where a dog bit him when he was ten years old. For every person who asks, he has a new story for how he obtained this scar. I've heard more tales than I can remember.

"Ellie," he said, "I'm so sorry about your mother. I know how close you were."

"Thanks, Hutch." I took his hand and shook it as if we were past and vague acquaintances.

We stood silent, holding hands. I felt tears rising and I wanted to place my head on his chest: I knew where it would fit.

"Don't cry," he said, and squeezed my hand.

I nodded.

"It's great to see your beautiful face. Even in your grief, you're adorable."

"Not true," I said. "But thanks."

"Did your mom tell you that I'd interviewed her last week for the Atlanta History Center exhibit?"

"Yes, she did." Proper sentences formed on my tongue with the well-practiced art of social graces.

He likes the cold side of the pillow and the aisle seat on the plane.

Hutch glanced around the sacristy. "I know this is an awful time and you probably won't even remember seeing me, but can I ask you a favor?"

"Anything," I said.

We were still holding hands, and I wouldn't let go.

"We --- your mother and I --- didn't finish our interview. Would you ... talk to me when things calm down?"

I nodded.

"Okay," he said, and let go of my hand. "I'll call you? Is that okay?"


"I'm sorry, Ellie. I'm really sorry you're going through this pain."

"Thank you, Hutch. And thanks for coming."

Rusty tuned in; he'd heard the name. Hutch walked away, and Rusty took my still-warm hand. "Was that Hutch?"

"Yes," I whispered.

"What the hell was he doing here?"

I shrugged. "I assume he's paying his respects just like everyone else here."

Rusty turned back to Weston and released my hand.

We were leaving the church when I saw the wildflower arrangement: a glass vase shaped like a large fish bowl was full of cornflowers and black-eyed Susans, forget-me-nots and Texas bluebonnets. I stopped and slid my finger up the stalk of a cornflower, rubbing the petal against my cheek. A long inhale of the sweet jasmine vine, which poured out of the urn like wine, made me dizzy.


I lifted the card from the arrangement. "Condolences, Hutchinson O'Brien."

Rusty came from behind and hugged me, wiping the tears I hadn't realized were wet on my face. "I think the worst is over, baby. Let's go home," he said.

"Yes," I said. "Home."

I placed the card back in the flower arrangement, but it fluttered to the floor, where I left it with his name staring up at me.


We make our choices and then we live with them.

Everyone does.


Torn pieces of sunlight whispered through aged moss, landed on a shattered log. The sea pounded on an unseen shore just steps beyond the dense maritime forest. Each crest and retreat of the waves matched Amy Reynolds’ heartbeat --- a beat she once believed sure and steady, a heart cleansed of Nick Lowry. But he resided in the unseen --- the syncopated space between each beat, the secret she didn’t hear, but knew existed.

Amy sat on the sea-aged fallen log, rested her head atop her knees and waited. She was now ready to hear what he had to say. Or she believed she was ready.

“All this time --- all of it --- I’ve been thinking of what to say to you. So many things to say to you.” He touched her mouth, her bottom lip.

Her hands fluttered in the air, butterflies with nowhere to land.

He continued. “And now here you are and I can’t find any of those words.” He closed his eyes. “Here you are, and all I want to do is touch that space below your throat.” He opened his eyes and gazed at her neck --- heat flared with the memory of his touch.

Her fingers landed gently on the hollow dent between her collarbones. His hand reached to cover hers.

“There. The place your silver cross used to lie, move every time you breathed.”

“I lost it,” Amy whispered.

“Lost what?” He gripped her hand.

“That cross… you.”

He moaned, bowed his head in what Amy thought might be prayer or defeat.

And all this time Amy had thought her life as neatly tucked and smooth as the vintage linen sheets on her bed; but wrinkles and folds hid beneath the surface.

The flaws of her life were covered like the thick white paint over the dirt-brown color the previous owner had painted her historic home, in the drowsy southern town where she lived with her husband and children. She’d applied another coat, and then another, until she was unknowingly suffocating in the layers of pretense.

Then Nick touched her. Then she lost the moon and crawled on her hands and knees to find it again.

Excerpted from COMING UP FOR AIR © Copyright 2011 by Patti Callahan Henry. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.

Coming Up for Air
by by Patti Callahan Henry

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 1250007844
  • ISBN-13: 9781250007841