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The Hand That Feeds

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So, what am I worth to you?

I asked Patty that, on the first day that I saw her after twenty-five years of silence. I was pretending to offer her the chance to buy me out from Ellen Parsons. However, I must have let too much apprehension and age-old emotion shade my tone, because she had merely smiled her usual cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, all malicious Mona Lisa—she knew the truth. My question wasn't about money. It was about blood.

I remember thinking that the older she got, the more she looked like her mother.

She looks like her mother the most when she is sad. I can count on one hand the number of times that I met the first Mrs. Hewes, but every time I saw her, she always seemed to be in deep mourning, completely heartbroken by the world and the unexpected intricacies of life.

This is the first time that I've ever seen Patty upset—truly, deeply upset, genuinely grieving. But even in her grief, she is still somehow in complete ramrod control. I think of my own children, and I do not think that I could be able to sit, so still and so quiet, just ten feet from one of their caskets. I also think that I never want to know for sure—that is a depth that I never want to sound, a part of myself that I never want to know, a capacity that I never want to test, and I fling a silent prayer heavenward that I never have to experience such a thing.

She stares blankly ahead, and I know that she is a million miles away. I sit next to her, so close that our elbows rub together, making us physically closer than perhaps we've ever been in our entire shared existence. I do not expect her to be pleased by my actions, but I don't care—Patty needs to be comforted, regardless of the fact that she probably sees it as a weakness and therefore beneath her. Regardless of all that we've said and done, she is still my sister, my blood, and my rightful place is still right here beside her as she wades through the deepest grief a mother can know.

From the other side of Patty's still-unmoving form, a small blonde head peeps out, quiet eyes cautiously scanning my face for signs of friendliness.

Catherine. I haven't actually met my grandniece, but I have seen her in the background whenever I visited Patty's apartment, and in a picture that Michael showed me, the day we met in my office. He had no idea who I was, what I truly was to him, how we were bound by blood. He died not knowing. That seems selfish, wanting him to know, but I think of all the other things of which his ignorance robbed him—holidays spent with his cousins, growing up with a warm and welcoming extended family, feeling part of a greater whole, knowing his roots.

The worst part of this tangled mess of unknowing rests in that serene young face peering back at me—Catherine has no idea what is really happening today, and part of me wonders if she will ever know the truth. Will she remember this man, this little lost boy who was her father? Years from now, will she remember sitting on this uncomfortable pew in this tiny little church, and will she realize that she was at her own father's funeral, and that she didn't even know who he was? Will she feel robbed by her grandmother, unjustly sentenced to a life of never knowing her father?

Those questions are for another day, a day very far into the future. If I know Patty, then I think that she will never say anything to Catherine, at least not until after Catherine has begged and screamed for information many times. Even then, it will be a clipped, concise, likely untrue statement, sans emotion or true depth or history. It will not be the answer that sweet Catherine deserves, but it will be the only one that she receives.

Patty has yet to acknowledge my presence, but I know her well enough to read the signs—her posture is even more rigid, the line of her lips thinner as she presses them tighter, and I know that she is fighting to retain her steely exterior.

Normally, I would let her stay inside her icy shell, because I know that is where she feels safe and confident, but this is not a normal occasion—she needs to cry, to experience her emotions and be vulnerable, even if only for a moment. It's a necessary part of healing, a vital pain that must be felt—I learned this whenever I lost Ted, when I spent so much time trying to be strong for our children, when I busied myself by tending to the wounds of others when my own heart had been ripped from my beating chest, when my own love story had been brought to a screeching, screaming halt as the man who had been the light of my life suddenly lost his. We were supposed to grow old together. He didn't even grow old at all.

I take a deep breath and quietly slip my hand into Patty's, giving a small, reassuring squeeze. She still doesn't look at me, but she squeezes my hand with a ferocity that surprises me, like a drowning woman clasping her only lifeline, and somehow the pain in my knuckles is welcome and warm, because it means that she needs me, even if only for this moment.

My father, most likely in an attempt to be his usual scathing self, once pointed out that I need to be needed. Though I'm sure it was meant as an insult, I have always seen the truth in that statement. Father left his first wife and child, and started all over again with my mother—I was supposed to be the boy whom he'd always wanted, the one who would somehow validate his life and inherit everything he'd worked for. To his unending sorrow, I was (and still am) very much female, and after my birth, he decided that he would not try again. The chance of producing another daughter was too great and too heartbreaking for him. I don't remember a single moment in my entire life that I wasn't aware of my father's disappointment in me, and I have spent the past five decades trying to make up for my grievous sin, this supposed failure over which I had absolutely no control—I have tried to prove how necessary I was, to show that I could still be useful and worthy of some kind of love. Years of therapy have pointed this out to me, and even more years of therapy have helped me overcome the feelings of doubt and self-loathing, but acknowledging the problem isn't the same as solving it completely. Those seeds of disappointment and passive-aggressive anger sown by my father grew into demons that still skitter around my brain, whispering ugly half-truths and harsh remembrances of things past. They are a permanent fixture—I shall be fighting them until the day that I die, but I don't think I mind the fight. It merely proves my strength. And it beats the alternative.

That is the greatest difference between me and my half-sister. Actually, that's the difference between most people and Patty Hewes. Most people wrestle with dark and dreadful demons, but she welcomes hers with open arms and enjoys them quite thoroughly—after all, she has nursed most of them from their fragile infancy, feeding them anger and injustice with the patience and diligence of a mother bird until they grew fangs and were able to devour her soul on their own. She holds grudges, she cradles them to her chest and lets them grown into furnaces of deep, unyielding anger for everyone who has ever wronged her in any way.

The problem with grudges and demons is that they always bite the hand that feeds them—however, Patty would gladly cut off her hand to satisfy her demons. Their hot and ferocious greed can know no end, for she will not allow them to starve, not when she can feed them by reliving old hurts and reopening old scars. She cannot simply let things go—both a virtue and a vice, a strength and a weakness, a blessing and a curse.

I think perhaps, when she was still a child, she developed this method of building her anger as a way to insulate her softer feelings, to shield her heart from more pain and more rejection. Sadly, she built a fortress and forgot to add a door—so now she's trapped inside her own shell, inside a prison of her own design, too blinded by her own anger to see the truth.

Despite this, I attempt to scale the cold wall of her emotional tower, because I can hear the cry for help that her lips are too proud and too delusioned to utter, and perhaps because I am driven by a masochistic need to help those who have only tried to hurt me.

Catherine is watching me again, so unbelievably still and quiet and introspective for such a young child—I remember neither of my children were that way when they were her age. Something tells me that her personality has a lot to do with being raised by Patty Hewes. I can't imagine my sister allowing any childhood nonsense.

Catherine. I wonder if Patty named her, and if she did, why she chose that name. After all, I am a Katherine, too.

I'll never know the answer to that question—mainly because I will never ask it. It would be admitting a weakness, letting Patty know that I still care, that I still need her love and approval and acceptance on some level. Even if I did ask, Patty would never give me the satisfaction of knowing that she'd named her granddaughter after me—even if it were the truth, she couldn't concede something so sentimental, because then it would be a point in my favor, a weakness on her part.

I do not hear the words of the priest, only the gentle cadence of his voice vaguely rippling against my thoughts—he did not know Michael, how could he possibly understand the loss of such a boy? What could he say that I don't already know about my nephew? What platitudes could even begin to heal the raw, aching wound of his absence—the wound that I know my sister must surely bear, though she may never speak of it aloud?

Instead, I simply hold my sister's hand as my eyes stay trained on her face, watching and waiting for any sign of distress. She is the reason I am here, she is my only concern in this moment.

She continues to stare blankly ahead, until the soft strains of the piano fill the tiny chapel. Then she stands, rather woodenly, though her expression changes when she looks down at sweet little Catherine, who rises to her feet also—it is only a flash, but in that fleeting second, I see the love and the regret and the worry and the fear, and I know that Patty truly loves her granddaughter, even if she doesn't always know how to show it. That was always her problem with Michael—she loved her son, perhaps more than she even realized, but she never really figured how to channel that love into something healthy and non-controlling. A bit like our father, though I would never dare point out such a similarity. I hope she doesn't make the same mistake with Catherine. Again, that's another discussion for another day.

I expect Patty to let go of my hand, but she doesn't. In fact, her grip tightens. She doesn't turn to look at me, to even acknowledge my existence in the least, yet I know that this simple action has taken so much for her, my sister of steel and icy independence. So I rise to my feet as well, gently walking beside her as she approaches her son's casket.

My sister has never told me that she loved me. She certainly has never said that she needed me. But she doesn't have to—the simple pressure of her smaller hand in mine is enough. It is the hand that has fed demons and wolves of unconscionable darkness, the hand that has toppled empires and ruined the lives of powerful men, the hand that once held my nephew as a baby, the hand that now holds the hand of my nephew's daughter, the hand that has taken part in many evil deeds, the hand that now trembles with loss and uncertainty, the hand that belongs to a woman defeated and broken, though perhaps only for a little while, the hand that grips mine so tightly that I feel a faint glimmer of pain in my fingertips, the hand that quietly says all the things her rigidly-guarded heart can never say, the hand of my sister, my family, my blood.

I return the pressure of that hand, silently assuring her that I'm still here, every step of this painful journey.

Our father once said that I need to be needed. I have never denied the statement. I think that it is part of a psychological defense constructed in my childhood as well—Patty decided that she'd do anything to be unlovable, while I decided to do anything to be loved. As usual, we ended up as polar opposites. But today, our differences are a blessing.

Patty stops in front of her son's casket. I silently thank the morticians for their diligence, although he's still much too pale to look as if he's simply sleeping, at least he looks peaceful.

She still does not release my hand. Instead, she lets go of Catherine to lightly reach up, trembling fingers slightly adjusting the pocket square on Michael's suit. Her hand ghosts over her son's face, not touching him, but perhaps committing the lines and contours to memory.

The hand once covered in blood is now too impure to touch her son in their final goodbye. I surprise myself with this literary thought, both melodramatic and true—it is the blood on her hands that killed her son in the end. I do not throw out this statement as an accusation, but rather as a gentle truth, which we both know and accept. Patty does not need to be reminded of this. She knows.

Once we are back inside the car, moving towards the cemetery, Patty slips her hand towards me—I immediately counter her move, reaching out to hold her hand again. She doesn't have to ask. I feel her unspoken gratitude as she gives my hand a quick squeeze. Patty has slipped her sunglasses on, and I think perhaps there are tears in her eyes.

I let my thumb gently rub circles on the back of her hand, slow and comforting. I have no doubt that this softness and new-found sisterly connection will not last. Once Patty has healed, she will turn on me again—she always bites the hand that feeds. It is simply her nature, just as it is simply mine to nurture and feed the mouth that bites. Despite this knowledge, I smile. For now, she needs me. For now, I am here and we are together, and for now, that is enough.

So, what am I worth to you?

I think that now I know the answer.