The Gulf of Love

A Rick Beck Story

quillswritersrealm@Yahoo.com

Editor: Jerry W.

Chapter 10
Overcast

 

By mid-April I'd stopped going to work.

I took dives with Bill Payne a couple of Wednesdays that spring. On dives I was able to clear my mind and free myself of worry.

I watched as Sunshine regained some strength. It was good to see her smile again. 

One day after a dive, and before I went home, I returned to the lab to see if Harry had replaced me.

No one had been inside since I locked the door behind me the month before. Even Bill, who held classes in my lab for convenience, hadn't been there.

When Bill and I dove together, we hardly talked. He seemed innately aware that I was having difficulty beyond the world of marine biology. He knew the basic facts behind the drama in my life.

Harry called, made small talk, inquired about Sunshine. He never mentioned I was obligated to him. I was Harry's man in the Gulf, only I hadn't been at work for weeks. I felt bad about that.

I was Sunshine's man too. I found it impossible to be away from her for long. Each time I left her, a fear of losing her overtook me and I raced home.

Sunshine was up and sitting on the porch with me as we ate breakfast later on in April. Mama made soft boiled eggs, hot tea, and her lighter than air biscuits slathered in butter.

Sunshine felt stronger. The doctors agreed the blood transfusions and vitamins had helped. The doctors approved her using the stairs if it didn't tire her too much. They warned her not to fatigue herself.

I was banned from going to the doctors with Sunshine, Mama, and Lucy. She was having a baby and the ladies knew what to do. She knew I was a nervous wreck any time she went near the doctors, always expecting more bad news.

I didn't like doctors.

They made a girl's day out when she went to the doctors. They ate out and didn't rush home. By later in April Sunshine was anxious to go out and the three of them were always laughing.

Getting away from the house gave me a strange relief and it improved my disposition but I dashed back whenever I went out. I was a drag. I had become forever anxious.

Having her at the dinner table improved Pop's disposition. He didn't go to a young ladies bedroom, not even one he considered to be his daughter. Pop didn't talk much but he listened carefully when the conversation turned to Sunshine's health.

A few times in early May I came in and Sunshine was in the kitchen with Mama and Lucy. They'd be engaged in girl talk and cooking that night's meal. I sat at the table to listen and see if I could absorb some of their energy. I didn't figure I'd learn to cook.

Some days Sunshine was at the table for dinner and on other days she was worn out by dinner time. I would carry a tray upstairs with our plates and we ate on the porch watching the Gulf.

“How do you feel?” I'd ask, once one of Mama's soups and bread pudding with fresh cream was in front of her.

“Oh, Clay, I'm fine. I tire easy but I'm stronger. I haven't been up all day for a long time.”

 

*****

 

Sunshine loved her room. She told me she'd never had a room of her own. The brilliant sun, clouds, and stars Lucy painted gave her a feeling of being connected to the universe. 

“I've never been anywhere, Clay. The only part of the universe I've been in is southwest Florida. I'd never seen the Gulf until we went to Ivan's. It scared me. Did you know Ivan sat for hours, at night sometimes, staring into the water. He loves that house.”

“We did it together for years,” I said. “When I first moved here, I'd never been anywhere either and the Gulf of Mexico fascinated me.” 

“It didn't scare you? It's so big.”

“No. Before I met Ivan I walked the beach every day. Then we sat together on the deck outside his bedroom every day. I lived up there with him for years.”

“You didn't like us being there. I could tell,” Sunshine said. “I remember you coming up and going out on the deck with Ivan. I'd hear you talking. I couldn't hear what you said, but you weren't happy.”

“Ivan and I were together all the time. Then he put you guys between us. No, I didn't like it. I wanted it to be the way it had always been but it's never going to be that way again. Ivan's gone now.”

“I'm sorry,” she said. “I didn't understand how close you were to him. His house beat the street. I didn't know we were in your space.”

“It wasn't your fault. It's the way the cards were dealt. I had no way of knowing what Ivan was thinking. He was in pain and I couldn't help him,” I said. “I thought I knew him, until this thing with Boris, his brother. I don't know this Ivan. I didn't know the drunk Ivan,” I said, not wanting to talk about Ivan.

“Are you OK, Clay?”

“Fine,” I said. “I was just thinking that we need to go to Key West. Ivan and I went last summer, after we graduated from high school. It is one of the most beautiful drives in the world.”

“Key West?”

“Yeah, it's way, way, below the tip of Florida. It's halfway to Cuba. There are little islands connected by bridges so you can get to Key West. You could only go by train or boat before the bridges.”

“Isn't that where the communists live?”

“It's actually where the Cubans live. They say on a clear day, standing at the tip of Key West, you can see Cuba,” I lied.

“That's a foreign country, isn't it?” Sunshine asked.

“It is now. It used to be the vacation destination for Americans. Then Castro took over and Cuba lost its luster.”

“He's the communist,” Sunshine assured me.

“And a Cuban.”

*****

 

By mid May Sunshine was feeling good. She gained weight and ate anything Mama put in front of her. Mama altered some of Coleen's clothes to fit Sunshine as her pregnancy progressed. 

There were days when we walked on the beach, holding hands like we did the first time I walked Sunshine to the conservancy house, thinking she'd be gone in a day or two.

Autumn moved on and winter came and went. It was an early spring and Sunshine brightened with the coming of perfect Florida days. She brightened our lives. There was no sign of anything but clear skies and smooth waters.

 

*****

 

No one knew what my relationship with Sunshine was, although Lucy figured most things out without much help. Lucy knew I had but one true love. She also knew I adored Sunshine.

May was proving to be better than April. Before months end we put a picnic basket in the car with the goodies Mama prepared for us, and we were off to Key West.

Ivan and I drove the same roads the summer before, but it was more spectacular the second time. Sunshine was fascinated by the blue green waters in every direction. Her fear of water subsided.

We stopped to fish in Key Largo, taking a boat ride, and to eat seafood at a restaurant where the boats unloaded their catch at the back door. It gave new meaning to fresh seafood.

Sunshine ate all the food on her seafood platter and helped me eat my crab cakes and scallops. I laughed as she couldn't get enough. We got two huge oyster sandwiches to get us to the next Key. 

We walked on the beach near the restaurant and picked up shells that dazzled Sunshine. She kept them in her lap as we were off for for Key West with the Chevy's top down and Sunshine's fine golden hair blowing on the breeze, flowing behind her as she basked in the sun.

I stopped to get her sunglasses as we headed along the endless expanse of bridges that carried us over vast stretches of water as we drove straight out into the passage between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Florida Straits were a mixture of beauty and untamed fury at the end of our drive where the tip of Key West faced Cuba.

In Key West we stayed in a hotel off Duval Street. We walked to the place where President Truman stayed when he was in Key West. We went to the bar where Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams met, when they met in Key West. Rumors about the two abounded. They were homosexuals. They were lovers.

They were two of the best writers in America but they weren't around to verify or deny the things being said about them.

Hemingway, on the other hand, had a seat ready for his return to the 1969 version of Sloppy Joe's. I felt Hemingway's presence in the raucous bar. I believed what was said about Hemingway far easier than I believed what I heard about Capote and Williams, but they were still among the living.

The first time I heard someone say, “They're gay you know.”

I replied, “How would you know. I hear there's only one way to know for sure.”

I bristled, objecting to someone being singled out as odd.

At land's end on Key West we stood on tiptoes in an effort to see Cuba. All we saw was water.

People came and went by boat, plane, and car. For a far away island that wasn't easy to get to, a lot of people wanted to be there.

We stayed for two nights and then headed back. While it was a wonderful trip, and the farthest Sunshine had ever been from where she was raised, we wanted to get back home where we belonged.

Sunshine looked tired. The trip to Key West was the best she'd been in months. I can't say it didn't tire her out. She didn't like being in the hotel room. She wanted to see all of Key West and that meant a lot of walking. On the third day she was ready to go home.

I took her breakfast in bed the first morning home and she wanted to sleep after she ate. I rocked alone on the porch.

New things were fine for a few days. The trip was fun. I liked being home. It was easier on Sunshine. It was our cocoon. The world didn't intrude very much on our beach after it took Ivan away.

On one of Sunshine's good days in June, I took the shells we'd collected on Key Largo to Hawkeye on a trip to Fort Myers to take Sunshine to the movies to see Midnight Cowboy.

The movie was set in New York City and featured an eclectic assortment of strange people. New York had to be the gathering place for the world's biggest weirdos.

My second look at gay characters in a movie was more depressing than the first. Why were people like me portrayed as psychological cripples? How sick were the people who wrote this crap? 

Sunshine said, “They were so sad. You think those two men loved each other, Clay?”

“It was a movie. I don't know why either of them was there.” 

By the time we returned to Hawkeye's. he'd created a gorgeous necklace for Sunshine. I told her, “This is the shop where I bought your Christmas gifts. The people are great.”

We ate Rubens and Rocky Road ice cream. Breeze and Penny Wise ate with us as Hawkeye made a leather vest. We all laughed and enjoyed the visit. Breeze and Penny Wise listened to Sunshine's belly.

I guess it was a girl thing.

“Let's go home, Clay. I'm so tired,” Sunshine said, once we were outside.

 

*****

 

Ivan turned nineteen in March. I was nineteen in June. Eighteen was full of difficult days. I had high hopes for nineteen and yet a strange feeling set in on me. How could I be so lucky and so sad?

I wanted Ivan to come home and not for a visit. I worried something was going to happen to him.

I wanted to be with Sunshine and our baby. This was going to make me happy as I matured. 

Sunshine weakened as June passed. She spent more and more time in bed. Once again the doctor advised she stay off the stairs and rest until the baby was born. It was due in July, but if she continued to weaken....”

Once again, out of my earshot, but according to Mama, Sunshine's doctor told her, “It's time to take the baby. You need the leukemia treatments now. Wait until after the baby is born and it may be too late for treatments.”

“I'm having my baby. He'll be OK,” Sunshine replied.

“There is no guarantee of that,” her doctor advised.

“He will be OK,” Sunshine assured him.

Harry called on my birthday. I hadn't been to the lab in next to forever. I'd dropped out of school to be with Sunshine and yet Harry called to wish me well. I told Harry I'd be with my wife if he needed me.

I left the house only to get things for Sunshine or Mama. I sat beside Sunshine's bed when she couldn't get up and we sat together on the porch when she could. There were good days and days that weren't good. She slept a lot and ate less and less.

I was nineteen and I felt very old and very useless. Anything important someone else did for Sunshine. I was the entertainment committee and I held her hand.

I worried the trip to Key West weakened Sunshine. Maybe we should have waited until after the baby was born to take that trip?

 

*****

Ivan came home late in June. He spent three days at the conservancy house. I was glad Mama had decided to let Lucy monitor Sunshine. Explaining Ivan sleeping in my bed would be tricky.

Our love hadn't gone anywhere. It amazed me how fast my anger subsided and the loving began. I couldn't be within fifty feet of Ivan and not want him. It couldn't be fought or dismissed for some higher purpose. I loved Ivan with all my heart and his absence from my life didn't change that.

It was temporary relief for a permanent condition and my love for Ivan didn't alter my love for Sunshine or the baby. I told Ivan this before the loving was done long enough for me to go get us sodas.

“I'm sorry I didn't make it on your birthday, Clay. I planned to hit the road to come home to you earlier that week, but Tim Wakefield began to talk after resisting my attempt to get information out of him. I was afraid if I didn't hear what he had to say then, he'd clam up again. He had important information about Boris. I'm sorry. I wanted to be here.”

“You're home now. I love you, Ivan.”

I don't know which one of us started the kissing, but it was the middle of the night before I caught my breath.

Lucy was immediately on duty and covering for me with Mama.

Ivan gave me key chains from the towns he'd been in. I didn't get him anything for his birthday and the key chains furnished me with a strange connection to my lover.

“This is all I wanted for my birthday, Clay,” he said. “I miss you so much.”

“Then come home,” I said.

“I can't,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

One of us started the kissing again.

*****

Sunshine cheered up when she saw Ivan. She sat on the porch with us one afternoon but she spent the rest of Ivan's time there in bed. Ivan sat beside me while I fed Sunshine soup or the bread pudding with cream she loved so much.

“Is it the baby that's making Sunshine so sick?” Ivan asked just before he left.

“She has leukemia, Ivan,” I said, and Ivan's eyes widened.

He kissed me goodbye and said he had a ride to his next stop, Yazoo City, Mississippi, where Wayne Horner lived.

 

*****

 

I wanted to grab Ivan, hold him, beg him not to leave me again, but I didn't. I smiled and wished him well as he left.

 

*****

 

I slept in the chair next to Sunshine’s bed after Ivan left. I was worried she'd have one of her bad dreams. I worried she'd have one and I wasn't there to hold her and keep her safe from her past.

I cursed loving Ivan so much. I prayed for his quick return. 

 

*****

 

July had its moments. The beginning of the month was uneventful. Sunshine was awake more and Lucy sat with us and Sunshine and her engaged in girl talk. There were two notable exceptions to the routine.

Early on July 17, Sunshine went into labor. We made it to the hospital with Mama and Lucy in tow. I was there through it all.

Dylan was born at 8:03 a.m on Thursday. She'd given birth within an hour of reaching the hospital. By the way Dylan scream, he was healthy and mad as hell we bothered him with being born.

Later I learned that Dylan was born at the time the Apollo 11 was leaving the earth, embarking on a journey that would put men on the moon. It was an amazing time, but I missed it. I was too busy having my son.

Dylan had no leukemia in his blood. We'd need to keep an eye on him but the odds were he'd remain healthy.

“What do you want to call him?” I asked, once Sunshine was awake and holding the baby.

Never had their been a prouder mother. Sunshine beamed as she hugged Dylan to her.

“His name is Dylan,” she announced to me.

“Like the singer?” I asked.

“Like the singer. I've loved Dylan ever since Ivan played his records at his house when I first went up there. When I asked him who it was, he said, 'That's Dylan.' I could tell he meant it.”

We brought mother and child home the day Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module onto the moon. It was all over the radio. I thought Ivan would be watching it somewhere.

Ivan read the space race articles in Time to me. Now Kennedy's prophecy was half fulfilled. The trick was getting them back to earth. I missed that too.

This, as so many other things did, passed me by that summer. It sounded great when I heard about it, but I had a wife and son to worry about the summer of 1969.

I had a family.

Mama gave me a crash course in diapering. When he needed a fresh diaper, Mama handed him to me.

“I diapered babies for ten years. It's your turn.”

I got a lot of practice. At first my diapers hung half off my son, when he was lucky enough to have dear ole' dad diaper him. Before long I was diapering with the best of them. It became second nature. I could get him clean, dispose of the dirty diaper, and have him in a fresh diaper in a couple of minutes.

I never did get accustomed to that smell.

While Dylan seemed healthy, Sunshine developed another problem the week after we brought them home. Sunshine stopped producing milk. Dylan refused formula.

The entire house went into a panic. I spent most of my time walking my wailing son and trying to get him to take nourishment.     These were difficult days. Mama and Lucy would take the baby from me saying, “Let me try.”

Dylan wasn't going to drink formula. 

*****

 

Dylan was beautiful as far as I was concerned. I was pretty proud of him. There was one difficulty: he cried something fierce. The boy was going to be a singer if he'd only eat.

Pop mentioned to Harry, who was home on summer recess, “Sunshine isn't producing milk. We're having no luck getting the baby to take a bottle.”

Dylan would shut up when Sunshine took him, he'd take the bottle for her, but he wasn't eating enough to keep him alive.

Mama spent a lot of time fretting over Sunshine and now Dylan. She spent time at the library searching for answers. 

Mama, Lucy, and I took turns trying to get Dylan to quiet down long enough to drink some formula. 

 

*****

 

The day after Pop talked to Harry, Harry showed up with Twila.

Twila was the pregnant woman from our wedding. She'd lost her baby. Harry told her about Sunshine. Twila offered to be Dylan's wet-nurse. Once she took Dylan, he went instantly silent as he took the nourishment he so badly needed. After he was fed, he fell asleep and the house fell quiet.

Twila answered our prayers and she would become much more then a wet-nurse, but that was enough for the time being.

I was allowed in the room while she nursed Dylan, but she sat with her back to me, close to Sunshine, holding Sunshine's hand while Dylan nursed. Sunshine watched adoringly as Twila did what she couldn't do for her baby. It was a wonderful thing to see.

Once Dylan had his fill, Twila handed Dylan to Sunshine. He was either sleeping or about to fall asleep as soon as he felt his mother's arms around him.

After first nursing Dylan, Twila said, “That's a healthy boy.”

We were waiting to get the results of Dylan's blood tests then. Hearing Twila pronounce him healthy was nice. Twila knew nothing about Sunshine's leukemia.

I naively asked, “What makes you say that, Twila.”

She began to laugh deep down inside herself as she smiled at me. I swear she was blushing. I didn't know if a black woman could blush. I wasn't sure if she was black, African-American, or colored. She was a life saver.

“Mr. Clay, the way that boy... latched onto me, ain't no doubt he's healthy. A woman knows by the way a child nurses.”

It made sense. I liked hearing it. Sunshine thanked Twila and held her hand for a few minutes before she let her go. Twila left breast milk in bottles, sitting with Mama in the kitchen while she did this. She'd return in the evening to feed Dylan again. She'd leave more breast milk to get him through until his morning feeding.

The first day Harry brought Twila and waited downstairs, eating coffee cake and talking to Mama. I'm sure Mama told Harry everything. He looked at me differently after that visit. I wrote it off to his concern for me, but I think Harry knew what was coming. His hugs got a bit firmer and lasted longer.

Once again Harry had extended me a hand and it was a life saver. Once Dylan found out what was in the bottles Twila left for him, he never refused one.

I'd pick Twila up in the morning near where she lived. She nursed Dylan, left bottles, and I took her to Harry's. She was his housekeeper. We reversed the process in the afternoon.

Everything was about Sunshine and Dylan and seeing to their needs. I put the rest of my life on cruise control, because I was half asleep half the time. I got up to get Dylan during the night and sat with Sunshine and Dylan until they fell asleep at night.

Twila was more than a woman supplying my son with milk. She was a friend to Sunshine and me. She treated us like we were her children. Twila was one of the best finds the Olson clan ever made.

After Twila left one morning, Sunshine asked, “How does Dylan Clayton Harry Olson sound? We can't name him Twila.”

“No we can't. Harry will be honored,” I said. “It's a lot of names.”

“Dylan's a lot of baby. Harry's been so kind, Clayton,” Sunshine reminded me. 

“He has,” I agreed.

Harry hadn't hesitated to bring Twila to us. We had a need and Harry solved the problem. Twila said we were doing her the favor. She absolutely hurt from producing so much milk. 

While no one said anything about Twila coming to nurse Dylan, I wasn't sure where my parents stood on the black and white thing. We never talked about it.  Lucy wouldn't be a problem. She was as dedicated to equality as anyone I knew.

 

*****

Mama's biggest concerns were saved for Sunshine. Childbirth was a dangerous proposition, even in 1969. For a new mother in Sunshine's condition, it took all she had to give birth to our son. Mama, a mother many times over, knew the territory.

Everyone loved having a new baby in the house. Dylan was a big hit. There was no talk about Dylan's propensity to scream in the middle of the night. His lungs were developing fine, thank you. I got to him as quickly as I could, but that didn't end the screams. Taking him on the porch helped, but everyone in the conservancy house was sleep walking by the time August rolled around.

Mama would be downstairs heating the bottle and Lucy would bring it up stairs to cut down the duration of Dylan's screams.

I'd hold him and rock him on the porch in the warm Florida night. Even with us working hard to allow Pop to get some rest, he too dragged by dinner time each day, but he never complained.

Twila whispered to Dylan and Sunshine as he nursed each morning. A big busted woman with a great infectious laugh. She was fun to be around.

After Dylan was fed, she put our sleeping son in Sunshine's arms. I could see the bond developing between the two women. Even with me in the room, they shared a special bond.

Later, as Sunshine weakened, she fell asleep before Dylan was done. Twila began to put Dylan in my arms.

“No sense waking Miss Sunshine. A boy needs his daddy to hold him too. You need to hold this boy a lot, Mr. Clay,” Twila told me.

“Yes, ma'am,” I agreed.

One day when I went downstairs, Mama and Twila were in the kitchen. It was Twila's day off from 'Mr. Harry's.' When I'd picked her up that morning, she had an iron skillet with her. I didn't ask any questions.

Now, as Mama and Twila stood at the stove, it was explained.

“Now that the bacon grease is hot, swish it to season the pan. It'll be taking the grease right off. Then we pours the batter in. The batter'll curl on the edges. You puts her in the oven thirty-five minutes. Take her out. Cools it. Run yo spatula round under it. Turns it out on your cloth. You gots perfect cornbread every time, Miss Lucille. This be my mama's iron skillet. I be given it to you.”

Once the iron skillet went in the oven, Mama and Twila sat back at the table to finish breakfast. I was afraid to ask Mama about Twila, and until that minute, I wasn't sure. If she and Mama were talking cooking, Twila was in like Flynn. 

We wanted to pay Twila for her services, but she wouldn't hear of it. It was the only time I saw her raise a fuss.

“This ain't no grocery store, Mr. Clay. What I provides that child comes from Twila's heart. You can't be a buyin'  that. I dos appreciate the thought.”

No, you couldn't, but Mama could hire Twila to work at the conservancy house. No such move could be made without Pop signing onto it. All my questions were answered without asking the question.

Twila would be in the house all day two days a week and she nursed Dylan several times during the day, leaving bottles at night. This cut down on the driving.

I was still mostly oblivious then. Mostly my mind was on my wife and son. Even Ivan had slipped my mind during August. If he'd called, Lucy talked to him and told him what was up.

*****

 

As August came to an end and September took hold, Sunshine rarely got out of bed for long. This was the month the doctors would begin treatment for her leukemia.

Each time Twila finished nursing Dylan, he came to me now. Dylan had begun to take my shirt in his fists, curled up with his face turned into my chest, and if he wasn't sleeping, he fell asleep. Once he had his bottle, he would do the same thing. To the relief of everyone at the conservancy house, Dylan began to sleep more and scream less.

I often went out on the porch and rocked in case he did cry. I didn't want him to wake Sunshine or anyone else.

“Boy be knowin' his daddy's smell, Mr. Clay. When he be fat and sassy, he smell you, he knows he be safe and secure in his daddy's arms,” Twila said one afternoon.

Twila left Sunshine's room and went downstairs with Mama. She'd be teaching Mama her tips for southern cooking. They'd laugh over jokes and stories one of them had told. Mama didn't have many friends.

When Sunshine's room began to close in on me, I took to walking the beach with Dylan in my arms. I liked walking to Ivan's and I'd stand next to the river where I first spent so much time, after we arrived from Tulsa.

I noticed Dylan would turn in my arms to see the Gulf's  turquoise water. It seemed to soothe him, gentle waves lapping at my feet. He'd be awake and taking in the change in surroundings.

I'd go back to sit next to Sunshine's bed and hold her hand once I'd burned off some energy.

It was peaceful then.

Some days Dylan wanted his mother. Some days he refused to  let go of me. Other days I could put him in his crib and he didn't wake up. Those walks wore him out too. But it was rare for him to tolerate being put down for long. He insisted on being held and I held him.

“You're going to spoil that child,” Mama told me.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

Dylan's tests came back. He was a healthy boy. and they could find no reason he wouldn't stay that way. This made Sunshine particularly happy. She worried she'd pass her disease to her baby. She didn't and she held him and looked radiant.

“Take him, Clay. I'm tired,” she'd say and I held him close. 

Harry was home all of August. Congress once again didn't have anything to do for a month. One day when I delivered Twila to his house, he came over to chat.

I said, “Oh, by the way, we're naming our son Dylan Clayton Harry Olson, Harry. Has a certain ring, don't you think?”

He couldn't speak at first. The mist in his eyes said that Harry was pleased. He put his hand on my arm and he smiled.

“That's the biggest honor I've ever had, Clay. I mean that.”

“You'll have to be at the christening. I don't know if Mama's preacher will sit still for it. There's the whole nine month deal he swears by,” I explained.

“My priest will have no such reluctance. You clear it with Sunshine. I'll clear it with my priest. When you're ready, will have a fine christening and we'll throw that boy a party.”

“You'll have to be there to hold him while he's named,” I said.

“I'll be there, Clay. I wouldn't miss it.”

“Don't you have a country to run, Congressman?”

“The country can wait. This is important,” Harry said.

Harry had already told me not to come back to work until Sunshine was better. I didn't intend to. He continued paying my salary the entire time I took off. Each time I looked at my check, I realized how blessed my life was. It always had been, except for Ivan.

Sunshine wasn't making much headway. I sat with her while she sipped soup or drank some beverage. She loved Mama's bread pudding. Mama made it fresh each day. She drove to the dairy out on the highway to Fort Myers for fresh cream to put on it to fortify Sunshine.

It's the most nourishing thing she ate and when I spooned some out of the dish, I could almost always get her to take a few bites.

One evening I ended up with my finger in the cream in the dish. Ready to whip it off, I looked at Dylan, I figured, hey, he drinks milk, maybe. Sure enough he sucked the cream off my finger and gave me a smile for my effort.

It was one of the first smiles I got out of my son. What a guy.

On Sunday evening Sunshine refused to drink or eat anything. She  asked for Mama and Lucy. I got them.

They wasted no time getting to Sunshine's room.

“Clayton, let me talk to them alone, OK?”

She'd made this request a few times and it was always best for me to let the girls talk. I thought it was a good sign but as usual, what did I know?

Mama and Lucy left with tears in their eyes. I went back to see what the hell was going on.

Before I could ask, Sunshine spoke.

“Clay, take the baby for me. I'm so tired.”

“Sure,” I said, kissing her on the cheek as I lifting Dylan out of her arms.

He grabbed my shirt and turned his body so his face was against me and he went on sleeping. He was equally comfortable with Sunshine or me now. He knew we were the guys who loved him.

“You take good care of him, Clayton” she said softly.

I hardly heard and I moved my ear close to her lips.

“Don't I always. I won't let anything happen to our son.”

She mumbled a few words and I moved my ear closer.

“I love you so much, Clayton,” she said softly.

Then in hardly a whisper,  she said four words that stunned me. It was something I needed to know. It was something I wasn't about to forget. Those four words had me cherishing Dylan even more.

I told no one about Sunshine's last words until I told Dylan when he was nearly five and asking for answers. I saved those words and told him what he wanted to know.

I sat with Sunshine for a few minutes before taking Dylan to rock on the porch outside my bedroom, still pondering what Sunshine said. 

 

*****

 

It was an unusually dark Sunday night. There was no moon or stars, but I could hear the Gulf waters a few hundred feet away.

I had no idea I was about to endure the worst days of my life.

*****

 

Sunshine died on Monday.

It rained.

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