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You are the place where I find myself.
You smell like chocolate chip cookies. Freshly baked, pulled from the oven upon my arrival. They taste of music—the beginning of a symphony, ripe with anticipation, giving bits and pieces away, but never spoiling the ending. They are the only cookies I ever liked that had nuts in them. You thought about making them without nuts, you said, but that would be like leaving out the cellos.
You sound like stories. Every picture has a story. That’s what you taught me. I loved looking at the pictures of you, hearing about how you were wearing Papaw’s jacket before you even met him. You sound like our stories. Stories of wearing couch cushion covers as hats. Stories of sweet smelling red cake baking in the oven. Stories of strength, of always believing in me, no matter what. Stories of love, curled up in your lap.
You are the place I know I will always be safe. When I was little, like maybe 8 or 9 years old, I decided that instead of going back to the hotel with my parents, I wanted to stay at your house that night. It was the night before Easter, so I might have had some selfish reasons. Like, maybe catching a glimpse of the Easter Bunny, or getting to see the Easter treats before Hannah. But I think the real reason was that I just didn’t want to leave.
Papaw set me up on a cot in the study, and together you both said goodnight. I said goodnight too, and assured you I would be fine. But as the door closed and the darkness engulfed me, my 8-year-old bravado disappeared. The bookcases became giants, the smiling portraits, monsters with pointy teeth, and every little noise throughout the house was deafening.
I might have lain there for two hours, or two minutes, but either way, it felt like a lifetime. Tears began to slink down my cheeks as I longed for the parents that in my fear I had reasoned were never coming back.
I crept out of the study and into your room. I felt bad for waking you up, and I felt bad for being such a coward. But as your eyes groggily met my tear-filled ones, you didn’t even hesitate. You moved over and I crawled into bed with you, and you held me. You squeezed me with all your might. You held on to me, and never let me go.
“It’s going to be alright Zoe,” you said. “You’re safe.”
I’ve spent my whole life in your arms. Even when I got too big to sit in your lap, and when your arms got too weak to really hold me. I can feel your warm embrace even now, when you are farther away than you’ve ever been.
Yesterday, at your funeral, I heard your voice. I heard the quiet syllables, like molasses slowly dripping from a bottle made of paper so thin that the weight of the words could break through it any second. It was the same words you used when I told you that my cat slept on my stomach at night. We were sitting in your hospital room, last Spring, you asked me about Frankie and Scout. I was sitting on the floor, knitting, and you had just gotten blood drawn. You were weak, but still as strong as ever. You always asked about our cats, and even though you were really sick, you didn’t want this visit to seem any different than any of the others. So you asked.
I told you about how the night before I hadn’t gotten very much sleep, how I woke up and was really uncomfortable, but I couldn’t move, because Frankie, I discovered, was sleeping on my stomach. I probably could have lifted him off if I really wanted too, but I kind of liked him there, he was warm, and curled up in a little ball. It would have been rude to wake him. So I let him sleep, and I went without sleep.
You were always the best listener, laughing at the funny parts, sighing at the nice parts, and almost crying at the sad parts. But not during this story. You had a very concerned look on your face the entire time I was speaking, but otherwise gave almost no outward reaction.
“He sleeps on your stomach?” you asked when I had finished. I nodded. “Oh Zoe,” you said, with a tone bordering on shock, “I really wish you hadn’t told me that.”
It turns out you were terrified of cats. It turns out you had nightmares of them suffocating you while you slept.
But for some reason, those are the words that came back to me yesterday. Well, some of them. As I played my flute for you during the service, tears streaming down my face, I heard you whisper, soft and warm, with affection: “Oh Zoe.” You were listening. And I knew that you always would be.
Last week when I visited you in the hospital, you could barely move. But when I walked into that dark room, grey light seeping through the windows, your face lit up. You smiled and you reached out your arms. I walked towards you and you pulled me close. Even though your body was slowly shutting down, and your entire body ached, you held me as tight as you have ever held me. You held me. You never let me go. Even though you didn’t say them, I heard the echo of that whisper from ten years ago, “It’s going to be alright Zoe,” you said. “You’re safe.”
You will always be my safe place.