A/N: Just a one shot I wrote last year for Mother's Day. Dedicated to all the moms out there! Happy Mother's Day to you all! :-)
To Forgive, Divine…
Laura Hardy looked at her son, the bouquet of flowers clutched so tightly in his hands she wondered if they'd survive, and her heart ached. She couldn't help but think of the irony, staring at the fragile blossoms against his strong hands. The delicate flowers were at his mercy; they could be cherished and nurtured, or crushed in the blink of an eye. A chill raced through her and she hoped it wasn't a metaphor for what her youngest child might soon be facing – his heart, his feelings completely at the mercy of someone else who could accept, cherish and nurture them or crush them…and crush his spirit right along with them. "Are you sure you don't want me to go with you?" she asked again, hoping he'd change his answer.
Joe gave her a shaky smile, trepidation and anxiety filling his eyes. He laughed nervously. "Yeah, I'd love for you to come with me but…" He blinked rapidly and drew in a trembling breath, shaking his head. "I have to do this myself."
Laura reached out and rubbed his arm, blinking back tears. "I know," she replied. Standing on tiptoe she kissed him on the cheek, surprised when he suddenly wrapped an arm around her waist and hugged her tightly. Quickly putting her arms around him, she hugged him back just as tightly. In that instant he was no longer a seventeen-year-old young man on the verge of adulthood, but her cherished little boy. Her protective maternal instinct surged to the surface and she didn't want to let him go. If his gesture was spurned she knew when she saw him again he might be changed – broken – forever. Even as he started to pull away she held on just a few seconds longer, finally releasing him with great reluctance.
As he stepped back, Laura reached up and cupped his cheek tenderly. "I'm very proud of you," she whispered. Joe gave her one more scared little smile, nodded and silently walked out the door.
She moved to the living room and stared out the large picture window, watching as Joe got into her car, slowly backed out of the driveway and disappeared down the street. She was immensely proud of him for what he was doing – she didn't know many adults who had this kind of courage – and at the same time she was terrified that his gesture wouldn't be accepted in the manner it was intended. Closing her eyes she clutched a fisted hand over her heart and prayed he wouldn't come back to her broken…
Grace Morton sat alone in the big bay window of her daughter's bedroom, staring out at the picturesque landscape. Iola had loved this window. As far back as she could remember, whenever Grace had been looking for Iola, she could almost always find her here on the window's bench seat, talking on the phone, reading, listening to music, doing homework or more often during her teen years, writing in the journal Grace now held in her hands.
She'd known for years that Iola kept a journal – a diary, really – but she never looked at it - ever. Both she and her husband trusted in themselves, and God, that they'd raised their children to know right from wrong, morally and ethically. Based on that faith in her daughter, Grace had respected Iola's privacy and never even been tempted to peek at her daughter's innermost thoughts. But that was then…and this was now…
Her baby, her only daughter, was dead. This was the first Mother's Day Grace had to face without her – and it was devastating. She needed to feel close to her daughter again and the only way she could do that was to immerse herself in Iola's deepest, most private thoughts and feelings. Somehow she knew Iola would understand…and forgive.
Waking up this morning, realizing what day it was and knowing she'd have to face it without her precious daughter, Grace found the pain was all-consuming and overwhelming. She could recall only one other time when she'd felt this kind of pain – soul searing, heart shattering pain so intense she couldn't breathe, not without reminding herself to inhale and exhale. She had begged God to take her – NOW! – because she just couldn't live like this, couldn't go on, didn't want to go on… It was the day Iola had died. A part of her had been savagely ripped away, leaving a gaping hole in her heart, her soul, her life…a hole that could never be filled.
That day had been much like today – sunny, warm, beautiful blue skies, and white fluffy clouds – the kind of day people longed for. But ever since that horrible day this kind of weather brought her only sadness, brutally reminding her that a piece of her heart was gone and could never be replaced.
Looking down, Grace ran her hand over the leather bound cover wishing she could touch her daughter just as easily; talk with her, laugh with her just one more time. Tears blurred her vision as she opened the well-loved book to a random page and her heart twisted. This was one of the later entries and like all the others from this time it revolved around one person – Joe Hardy. As always happened now whenever she saw anything that reminded her of him, she was overwhelmed with a mass of contradicting emotions.
She'd known Joe since he was a child, when he and Frank had befriended her son, Chet. Joe had been a friendly, boisterous, happy-go-lucky little boy with enchanting eyes, an infectious laugh and a mischievous streak a mile wide. Grace had always enjoyed it when the Hardy brothers came to the farm to play; Joe's playful personality was like a magnet that no one could resist, least of all Iola, who'd developed a crush on the youngest Hardy almost immediately. He'd grown into a handsome, outgoing teenager who was quick to laugh and had a healthy zest for life, tempered with compassion, empathy and an ingrained need to help others, whether they were family, friend or total strangers. It was easy to see why her daughter had fallen so hard for him.
Grace wanted to remember those times now, knowing in her head that she shouldn't blame Joe for Iola's death; he was just as much a victim as Iola had been. But she was a mother, first and foremost, and when she thought with a mother's heart and emotions rather than logic and common sense, she couldn't help but hold him at least partially responsible. And with this being Mother's Day, the first Mother's Day without her daughter, she asked the Lord once more…
'Why? Why didn't you take him instead of her?'
Even as she thought the words, she begged for forgiveness. No parent should ever have to bury a child; the pain of it was endless and something she wouldn't wish on anyone, least of all one of her dearest friends, Laura Hardy. Still, ever since Iola had died their friendship had been strained as if Laura knew, on some level, that Grace blamed Joe for what had happened…or at least the way it happened.
Grace tried not to hold the Hardys responsible but sometimes like now, when the pain just became too much, it was impossible not to. These were the times she couldn't help but think if Fenton Hardy hadn't been a private investigator, if he hadn't been tracking down terrorists, if he hadn't encouraged his sons' interest in following in his footsteps it never would have happened.
That always led to the thought she hated the most, but couldn't seem to shake… If Iola hadn't been dating Joe Hardy or even if only he'd gone to the car that day, her daughter would still be alive. She wouldn't be trying to figure out how to make it through this Mother's Day without dying of a broken heart… These were the times she couldn't help but blame Joe for her daughter's death and sometimes she hated herself for it.
Joe was a good kid, raised right, the kind of teenaged boy every parent wished their daughter would bring home, and Iola had adored him. In life he had made her daughter deliriously happy but she couldn't get past the fact that if Iola hadn't been with him, she wouldn't be facing this Mother's Day with only one child. Why did Iola have to fall in love with Joe? Why not one of the other boys who made up their close-knit circle of friends? Biff Hooper, Tony Prito, Phil Cohen – all of them handsome, friendly, respectful, well-mannered young men. But none of them could hold a candle to Joe Hardy, not in her daughter's eyes.
Choking on a sob, Grace opened the journal again, to her favorite entry. It seemed to both soothe her soul and shatter her heart all over again whenever she read it. Iola had written it the night of her sixteenth birthday. Grace and her husband, Chester, had pulled out all the stops for a Sweet Sixteen party to remember; but they had been eclipsed by Joe Hardy. He and Iola had been dating for a little over a year and on her sixteenth birthday Joe had presented her with a promise ring – a delicate white gold band with a small diamond. Later, Grace and Chester would privately joke about needing a microscope to actually find the tiny gemstone but to Iola it was bigger than the Hope Diamond – and so were the dreams it represented to her daughter. That night Iola had poured her heart out to her diary with all the hopes and plans and dreams she had for the future – a future that revolved completely and totally around Joe Hardy.
Grace ran her fingers over the pages as she read the entry again, though she didn't really need to; she had committed it to memory long ago. But seeing the words written in her daughter's own hand somehow made Iola seem alive again, if only for a moment.
Like most teenage girls, Iola had a fairy tale image of how her life would play out. She envisioned herself marrying Joe soon after college in a ceremony fit for a princess. She and her prince would live in a modest, welcoming house either on the edge of the Morton property or maybe in town, close to Joe's parents. The large yard would be surrounded by a white picket fence, with plenty of room for children, a dog and a cat.
Iola planned to be a grade school teacher and she was certain Joe would follow the path his father had blazed, becoming a private investigator, probably partnering with his dad and Frank. Grace couldn't help but smile at the entry where Iola stated she wanted 'LOTS of children!' Her daughter imagined boys with blonde hair and laughing blue eyes and little girls who had their daddy wrapped around their little fingers. She and Joe would be loving, devoted parents who would teach their children, nurture them and watch them grow. Iola saw herself growing old with Joe and the two of them eventually doting on their own grandchildren…
Grace openly wept as it hit her she was reading about the grandchildren and great-grandchildren she would never have. She cried for the daughter she knew for only sixteen short years, the daughter she would never see blossom into adulthood, for all the milestones they had been robbed of.
It was only when she heard a car pulling up in front of the house that the tears slowed. Wiping her eyes, she wondered who it could be. She had gone to church that morning and then to brunch with Chet and Chester - it had been one of the hardest things she'd done, but she still had one living child and understood that he needed his mother, too. However upon arriving home they both seemed to understand, without words, that she needed to spend some time with Iola. A short time later, as she sat in Iola's room surrounded by her daughter's spirit, she'd heard the old pick-up truck as her husband and son quietly left her to her memories. They hadn't been gone all that long and she knew they wouldn't have come back so soon.
She heard a car door open and close, followed by footsteps on the old wooden wraparound porch and a tentative knock on the door. Putting the journal down on the bed, she got up and walked downstairs. She opened the door and was stunned to see a very scared and nervous looking Joe Hardy staring back at her. He was holding a bouquet of flowers, his hands shaking so badly the blossoms were actually trembling. Taking a closer look at the flowers she gasped out loud, her hand covering her mouth. She stared at them as her eyes filled with tears.
"Iola said they were your favorite…" Joe stammered nervously, now holding the bouquet out awkwardly. "She said she always gave them to you on Mother's Day."
Grace looked up again and saw not the strong, confident young man her daughter had fallen so hard for, nor the one she couldn't help but blame for Iola's death, but a frightened child. A child whose eyes reflected suffocating guilt and pain so deep she wasn't sure it would ever, truly go away; the same pain she saw every time she looked in the mirror. That image would be permanently seared into her memory and she was struck with the realization that Joe was suffering just as badly as she was. They had both lost something precious and irreplaceable – she a daughter and Joe his first love…and all the innocence that went with it. And suddenly all the animosity, all the anger, all the blame she held for this scared boy melted away.
Wiping away the tears she reached out and took the bouquet. Bringing it closer, she closed her eyes and inhaled. Seconds later she was overwhelmed by memories of her daughter – happy memories – of Mother's Days past. She heard a child's laughter, morphing into a teenager's giggle. For a few seconds she felt arms around her waist, hugging her from behind the way Iola always loved to do. A breeze ruffled the curtains on the open window and the soft voice of her daughter whispered around her… "Happy Mother's Day, Mom… I love you…"
Grace held the bouquet tightly to her chest, close to her heart. 'I love you too, Baby…'
Slowly she opened her eyes. Joe still stood before her, frozen. He hadn't moved; she wasn't even sure if he'd breathed… But while the rest of him was stock-still his eyes – those eyes that had been immortalized in her daughter's diary – spoke volumes. 'I'm so sorry…I wish it had been me…Please…forgiveme…'
"Oh, Joe…" she began, not sure what she was going to say, and then glanced at the flowers before looking back at him. "They're beautiful," she whispered.
The boy let out a whimper and as she saw the relief cascading over him it hit her just how much courage it took for him to do this, not knowing what kind of reception he would get. It would have been so much easier for him to stay home, to celebrate with his own mother and pretend he didn't know how devastating this day was for her, but he didn't. He took a risk, having no idea how he'd be accepted or even if he would be accepted, and she realized Joe Hardy was mature beyond his years – and someone she would have been proud to call her son-in-law.
Staring at him, she could now clearly see what she hadn't – or wouldn't – before: he was in pain, too; a different kind of pain than hers, but pain nonetheless. And in a way, his was worse…while she thought she could finally start to forgive him for his part in her daughter's death, real or imagined, she knew he would never forgive himself. This boy, this child, with one simple gesture had given her back the Mother's Day she'd longed for, if only for a moment. And in that moment, the mother in her resurfaced.
She smiled sadly and opened her arms. He hesitated for a few seconds, unsure, but then rushed forward, practically collapsing into her embrace. Seconds later she felt tears soaking through her blouse. The boy was shaking, trying to hold back, not understanding he needed to open the floodgates and let it go, hoping it might wash away some of the pain. Reaching up she gently stroked his hair, murmuring softly, "Oh, honey, you have to let it out." She heard a choked sound and then the boy sobbed…
Grace had no idea how long they stood like that and she didn't care. She knew that later, she would look back and realize they were sharing something precious. Joe had loved her daughter in a way no one else ever had or ever would, just as she had loved her daughter like no one else could. Their love for Iola had been different but unique to them…and their pain was following the same course.
Eventually Joe shifted and pulled away from her. Eyes downcast, he swiped at his eyes and sniffled, trying desperately to avoid looking at her, and her heart melted at the image of the little boy trapped in a young man's body. Reaching out, she placed two fingers under his chin and gently nudged his head upward until he was looking at her. Again she was struck by the vividly piercing blue eyes and the dizzying emotions they held. She smiled at the boy who had owned her daughter's heart in a way no one else could.
"Would you like to come in and…talk?" she asked hopefully, suddenly aching to talk about her daughter, to share cherished memories of Iola with someone who had treasured her just as much as Grace had. She saw the pain in those blue eyes ease just a little.
The smile that Iola had described as food for her soul appeared and Joe drew in a breath, exhaling on a shaky smile. "I'd like that…a lot."
Laura stood at the window in the living room, waiting and worrying. Joe had left hours ago to see Grace Morton and Laura hadn't been able to concentrate on anything since. She looked at her watch again and bit her lip… This was either very, very good or very, very bad. Had Grace seen Joe's gesture for what it was – a desperate effort to keep Iola alive for her mother, even if only for a few minutes, on this most special day? An acknowledgement of how incredibly difficult this day was for her? A heartfelt attempt to ease the pain, even knowing nothing could?
Laura wasn't sure Grace Morton would be able to see through the blinding pain of losing a child to see her child's pain and grasp that his intentions were good and came from the heart. He was taking a big chance, willing to sacrifice himself to Grace's anger and desperate need to blame someone, if that's what it took to bring her some measure of peace on Mother's Day. While Laura was hopeful that wasn't the case she was also realistic – it hadn't even been a year yet. She just wasn't sure that Grace could see the goodness in Joe's heart and understand what he was trying to do - keep her daughter's memory alive. She was afraid of how Grace might react and even more afraid of how Joe would respond if that reaction wasn't positive.
In the weeks and months after Iola died, Joe had spiraled out of control and Laura feared it was just a matter of time before she, too, found out what it was like to bury her youngest child. She shivered despite the warm sunshine streaming through the window, recalling how her son had turned into a stranger. It was only when he met Vanessa Bender that Laura began to see subtle changes in him as the son she knew and missed so desperately occasionally resurfaced. Yet even though Joe had been dating Vanessa exclusively for several months now and steadily continued to climb out of the hell he'd called home for so long, there were times she could still see the darkness hovering around him, just waiting for him to slip and tumble back into the abyss.
The more time passed the more anxious Laura became, terrified that Grace had indeed taken out her anger and pain on Joe. She knew Joe was in no frame of mind to understand and let it slide but instead would internalize it, letting it feed the absolute certainty he had that Iola Morton's death was completely his fault. She feared he would do something that couldn't be undone and next year on this day she might know exactly what Grace Morton was feeling…
Laura squeezed her eyes shut, second-guessing herself. 'I should've gone with him! Just in case…' She shivered as the unthinkable flashed through her mind. 'Oh God, why did I let him go alone?'
The phone suddenly rang, shattering the silence and Laura jumped. Moving quickly, she picked up the phone, praying it was Joe.
"Laura?" The voice was tentative and soft and so very familiar even if it had been months since she'd heard it.
"Yes…it's me," Grace Morton acknowledged. "I just wanted to let you know Joe just left. He should be home soon."
"Oh, thank God." Laura gasped, realizing she'd said it out loud and feeling mortified until she heard a low, soft laugh from the other end of the phone.
"Considering the circumstances I thought you might be…concerned," Grace said knowingly. "I just wanted to let you know he was on his way home."
"I appreciate that," Laura said sincerely.
"Laura…he's an amazing young man. You should be very proud of him," she added softly.
Laura felt her eyes burning with pride for her son and compassion for this mother who had suffered such a tragic loss. "Thank you," Laura replied, her voice shaking with relief and emotion. "I am."
"Happy Mother's Day, Laura."
"Happy Mother's Day…"