From Chicken Soup for the Girlfriend's Soul

Power of Love

Proximity was their support; like walls after an earthquake they could fall no further for they had fallen against each other.

Elizabeth Bowen

“Mom! Will you puh-leeze tell Kristen to stop hogging the bathroom?” thirteen-year-old Natasha calls downstairs to her mom, Michele.

“I was in here first!” Kristen, twelve, shouts.

“You girls work it out yourselves!” Michele calls from the kitchen, and sure enough, a few minutes later when Kristen and Natasha troop downstairs with their schoolbooks, they’re laughing and gossiping like . . . Just like sisters, Michele marvels, and for the thousandth time she thinks, It’s no wonder God put Kristen in my backyard all those times. He knew all along that one day she’d need a new home and family.

It was seven years before, the afternoon Natasha first pointed out the shy little girl in the Manchester, New Hampshire, schoolyard and said, “That’s Kristen. She lives on the street behind us, and her dad’s a fireman, just like Daddy.”

Natasha was a year ahead of Kristen, but the girls became fast friends. Nearly every afternoon, when Michele looked out her kitchen window, she’d see them climbing trees together or playing on the backyard swings.

“Mom, can Kristen sleep over?” Natasha asked one Saturday, and when Michele called to check with Kristen’s mom, Nancy, she was surprised to learn that growing up they’d gone to the same school—just like their daughters.

“I know her husband, Dave Anderson,” Michele’s own husband, Al, said that night as he set up the rollaway cot in Natasha’s room. “He’s stationed at Engine Company 11.

He’s very dedicated.”

Kristen and Natasha grew inseparable. They played dolls and did their homework together at Michele’s kitchen table. They rode their bikes to Natasha’s Uncle Bill’s gas station a few blocks away to fill their tires, and from there it was a short ride to her grandparents’ house for big bowls of chocolate ice cream.

“Thank you for letting Kristen sleep over again,” Nancy told Michele one evening. “My asthma’s acting up, and my inhaler isn’t helping at all.”

“Kristen is always welcome in our home,” Michele said. “We all enjoy having her around.”

Kristen also enjoyed spending time with Natasha’s family. “Wheeee!” she shouted when Al gave the girls rides on their ATV. In the winter, Michele taught Kristen how to ice skate, while Natasha’s teenage brothers, Matthew and Nicholas, showed her how to ice fish and swoop downhill on a sled.

But one afternoon Kristen raced through the alley gate, her eyes wide with worry. “Mommy had a real bad asthma attack and Daddy had to take her to the hospital!” she exclaimed.

“I’m sure she’ll be okay,” Michele comforted her. But that night Nancy suffered a massive coronary, and by morning, she’d slipped into an irreversible coma.

For the next two days, Michele cooked Kristen’s favorite meals, like macaroni and cheese, and played countless games of rummy to help keep her mind off her mom. On the third morning, there was a call from the hospital.

“Sweetie, your mom has gone to live with God,” Michele told Kristen. When Kristen burst into tears, Michele held her in her arms, feeling thoroughly inadequate.

At a time like this a girl really needs her mom, she thought. Only now, Kristen will never, ever have a mom again.

When Michele offered to help with the funeral arrangements, Dave couldn’t thank her enough. “I don’t know how I’m going to raise Kristen alone,” he worried.

“You won’t have to,” Michele assured him. “We love Kristen. She’s always welcome in our home.”

Dave tried his best to carry on without his wife, but his grief was overwhelming. Michele sensed Kristen needed a stronger shoulder to lean on, so she enrolled Kristen in a bereavement group and went with her to every meeting. She checked Kristen’s homework and attended her class open houses whenever her dad couldn’t make it because he was on duty at the firehouse.

Kristen spent the summer swimming and boating with Natasha, Nicholas and Matthew at the lake, and in the fall, Michele threw her a seventh birthday party with a big cake and lots of presents. Kristen’s dad, aunts and uncles were all there, and she had a wonderful day. But Kristen’s heart was heavy.

“I miss my mom,” she told Michele that night as she climbed into the rollaway bed alongside Natasha’s. Outside, a thunderclap rumbled in the skies—frightening the girls but leaving a smile on Michele’s face.

“That was your mom saying hi,” she explained. “And just listen to that rain. Your mom’s helping God make the plants grow. She wants you to know she’s always around, always watching over you.”

Kristen loved helping her dad cook up a big pot of firehouse chili, but Dave worked long hours, and he was still shattered by his loss. “It helps knowing Kristen is in such good hands,” he told Michele.

“The heart always has room to love another,” Michele assured him.

As the months passed, Kristen became such a frequent houseguest that, when Matthew left home to take his own apartment, Michele and Al moved the girls into his larger bedroom and bought a second bed and dresser just for Kristen.

“We can put your mom’s picture and her jewelry box right here on top,” Michele said, and Kristen felt so lucky to have a family who loved her and wanted to make her happy.

Natasha felt lucky, too. “I don’t know what I’d do if something ever happened to you,” she told her mom.

“I’m very proud of you,” Michele told her. “Not every little girl would be so willing to share her room, her toys and her family.”

Then, one afternoon, Al came home with a grim look on his face. “Something terrible has happened,” he quietly announced, sitting on the sofa beside Kristen. “Your dad had a heart attack saving a little boy from a fire,” he told her. “I’m so sorry. He’s gone to be with your mom.”

Kristen was devastated. “Why did God have to take both my mommy and daddy?” she sobbed.

“Sometimes, bad things happen again and again, and we never understand why,” Michele said, holding Kristen in her arms and wishing there was something she could do to ease her pain.

Kristen’s aunts and uncles would happily have taken in their orphaned niece, but Kristen had been through so much already that Michele worried about putting her through even more upheaval.

“She’s already a part of our family,” she told Al. “She and Natasha are like sisters, and I couldn’t love her more if she were my own flesh and blood.”

“Maybe Kristen could stay on with us,” Al said, and Michele thought this was a wonderful idea. But would Kristen’s relatives agree?

“We know how happy she is here,” Kristen’s Aunt Judy spoke for the family. “We only want what’s best for Kristen, and that’s being with people she loves and trusts.”

The day Michele and Al petitioned for legal custody, they handed the judge a stack of letters from Kristen’s relatives, expressing their heartfelt approval and gratitude to the Poulins. “What do you want to do?” the judge asked Kristen.

“I like living with Natasha’s family. They give me everything I need,” she said, and without hesitation the judge granted the petition.

“Let’s go home,” Michele told Kristen, and now, it truly was Kristen’s home.

Today, Kristen and Natasha still study together at the kitchen table, and they’re both honor-roll students. Michele stays busy driving them to soccer practice and gymnastics lessons at the Y. And one day, when Michele went to the mall to collect the girls, Kristen started waving from across the courtyard.

“Hey, Mom! We’re over here!” she shouted, and Michele’s heart nearly burst with happiness.

Back at the car, the girls fought like sisters over who got to ride up front. But at home, the bathroom wars are over—now that Al has turned Natasha’s old bedroom into a huge new bathroom with a vanity and mirror big enough for two teenage girls to share.

Sunday afternoons, Michele and Al take Kristen to the cemetery so she can place flowers on her parents’ graves. Michele keeps a picture of Nancy and Dave on top of the TV with photos of the rest of the family, and she collected baby pictures from Kristen’s aunts and uncles and put them into an album so Kristen can have them forever.

“I never want Kristen to forget her parents and how much they loved her,” she says. “But it feels wonderful, knowing we’ve become her family, too.”

Heather Black
Previously appeared in Woman’s World

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