“What’s wrong?” Harper asked. “Is it cancer?”
“Harper!” Gemma said, appalled. “Why would you even ask that? Why is that the first place your mind goes?”
“Calm down.” Brian held up his hand. “It’s not cancer. I’m not sick. Everybody’s fine.”
“Sorry,” Harper said. “Just when I hear ‘sit down and talk,’ I immediately think bad news.”
“Well … stop that. Everything can’t be bad all the time.” Gemma leaned back in her seat, then turned to Brian. “What is it, Dad?”
“I’m divorcing your mother,” Brian blurted out.
Harper and Gemma instantly fell silent and just stared at him.
“Why?” Gemma asked, and once she spoke, the questions came out rapid-fire.
“What about Mom’s health insurance?” Harper asked, leaning forward on the table.
“The accident was almost ten years ago,” Gemma said. “Why would you stay married to her for so long just to divorce her?”
“Where is she gonna live?” Harper asked. “You can’t leave Mom out on the street.”
“Is this because Harper is going to college?” Gemma asked.
“If you can’t afford her insurance and college, you don’t need to give me any money. I already told you not to,” Harper said.
“Why did you go see her? Did you already know you were going to divorce her?” Gemma asked.
“How long have you been planning this?” Harper added.
“You both need to stop talking,” Brian said calmly but firmly. “I’ll explain everything to you if you just listen.” He waited until they were both quiet before continuing. “Thank you. I love Nathalie. Or I did. The way I feel about her is very complicated, but … we’re not a real married couple anymore. She’s not a wife.”
“She’s your wife,” Gemma said pointedly.
He shook his head. “I can’t talk to her.”
“Yes, you can,” Gemma persisted. “We talk to her. We see her every week.”
“I can talk to someone who looks like my wife and sounds like my wife, but she isn’t,” Brian said sadly. “I can’t tell her about you, or about my job. I can’t ask her questions. I can’t share my worries or concerns. I can’t laugh with her.”
“But Dad, she hasn’t changed in years,” Harper said, her tone softer and less accusatory than Gemma’s. “She’s been like this for a really long time, and you knew that. Why now?”
“I stayed married to her partially for you,” Brian admitted. “I knew it would upset you if I divorced her, and I didn’t want to abandon her. She’s sick. I know she is, and I didn’t want to be the guy that left her or couldn’t hack it.”
“But you can’t hack it,” Gemma said, and Harper shot her a look.
“No, there’s nothing to hack, Gemma,” Brian said. “This hasn’t been a marriage for a very long time. She is still family. She’s your mother, and she will always be a part of this family. That will never change. We just won’t be married.”
“Why now?” Harper asked.
“You’re getting older. And I see you girls, and the way you struggle to find a place. It feels like things have been in flux for a long time, like we can’t move forward and we can’t go back. And I need to make sure you feel like you have someplace strong, someplace safe to come back to, so you feel confident to venture out into the world.”
Gemma snorted. “You think getting a divorce will make us feel safe?”
“I think it will show you that sometimes you have to move on,” Brian said. “Sometimes bad things happen, and it’s nobody’s fault, but you can’t dwell on them. You have to make the best of this life, and I don’t think I’ve been a good example of that.”
“We know you tried the best you could, Dad.” Harper smiled wanly at him.
“That hasn’t been good enough,” he said.
“So what’s going to happen to Mom now?” Gemma asked.
“I talked to the lawyer that was handling Bernie’s estate, and your mom actually qualifies for more benefits if we’re divorced,” Brian said. “She’ll be eligible for better care.”
“So she’s going to move?” Gemma asked.
Brian shook his head. “No, no. That was a big condition. I would never go through with this if it meant taking your mom away from you or putting her in a bad situation. I’ll still be her legal guardian, and she won’t move. When you girls are older, if you want to, you can step up and take over her guardianship, but I don’t want to put that on you. I’m fine handling her affairs.”
“I still don’t understand,” Harper said. “Why now?”
“I want you both to be happy. That’s honestly the most important thing in the world to me. That you two are happy and healthy.” He paused. “But you’re growing up. You have lives of your own now. I hardly ever see either of you.”
“Sorry, Dad,” Harper said.
“No, don’t be sorry. That’s the way it ought to be. But I’m forty-one years old. Pretty soon I’ll be alone in this house. And I can’t still be in love with a woman who is never coming back.”
“If this is what you think is best,” Harper said, “then I support you.”
“Thank you, sweetie.” He reached out and touched her head gently.
“Gemma.” Harper leaned over and took Gemma’s hand. “It’ll be okay.”
“I just feel like everyone’s abandoning her.” She swallowed hard. “And it’s not her fault. Mom didn’t do anything wrong. She can’t control who she is anymore.”
“I know,” Brian said. “And she’s not being punished. This isn’t about it being her fault. Nobody’s abandoning her. I want to make that perfectly clear.”
“I know it shouldn’t matter, because I’m sixteen, and Mom’s not even around. Nothing will really change. But…” She exhaled.
“Nobody will forget about her or leave her behind,” Harper said. “You know I would never let that happen. Right?”
“Right,” Gemma said reluctantly. “I know. Sorry.” She wiped at her eyes. “I’ve been emotional lately, and this just … I don’t know. I’m sorry, Dad. I know that you wouldn’t take this decision lightly, and you love Mom. So if you need to do this, I understand.”