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Dead Ringer: Chapter Five
Link to Chapter Four.
I had just finished printing out my reports — one documenting the number of pastoral visits for the month and the other a compilation of brief but essential notes on each person visited — and was gathering my things to leave, when Mavis half-shouted at me from the front of the office.
“Guy called from the ER.”
When I didn’t answer right away, she added, “I didn’t want to disturb you.”
What she meant was, no phone calls until your homework is done. I knew better than to say anything other than, “Okay, thanks.” In response, I heard the heavy thunk of the office door closing.
“Okay, bye,” I said to the empty hallway.
I picked up the phone and dialed the ER’s extension. Molly, one of the day nurses, answered.
“Hey, Molly. I need Guy.”
“Hold on, I think he’s still here,” she said.
I sat for a couple of minutes, listening to some tinny Bossa Nova music until Guy’s voice came on the line.
“There’s a woman here asking for you.”
“Who is it?”
“Says her name is Rachel Roper.”
“Huh,” I said. “And she asked for me?” The only Rachel I could recall was a pointy-nosed retired schoolteacher from my congregation in Philadelphia.
Guy took a slurp of the Diet Coke he was rarely without. “Says she went to high school with you. About five-five, brownish hair? Eyes the color of October sky?”
Guy, the poet. I shook my head, trying to jar loose three decades of overlapping memories. “I absolutely can’t place her,” I said.
“Asked for you by name.” Quiet slurping.
“Any idea what’s going on?”
“Said she was having trouble breathing, that’s all I know. I’m just the messenger, she caught me as I walked by her in observation, asked if you were around. I told her I’d find out. And now my work here is done.”
“Okay, then, I guess I’ll see you in a few,” I said, but Guy had already hung up.
I pulled the reports from the printer, and stapled them together, leaving them on Mavis’s desk, grabbed my purse and headed downstairs.
I found Rachel Roper dozing on a gurney behind a large white curtain. I was half-tempted to leave her a note at the nurse’s station, but she awoke and turned her startling blue eyes on me, and I saw that Guy hadn’t lied.
“You’re Blainey, aren’t you?” she asked, sitting up, and I nodded. Her voice was warm and low, her accent almost East-Coast-boarding-school refined. She had high, delicate cheekbones and full lips. Strands of cinnamon-colored hair had escaped from a tortoise-shell clip and brushed her shoulders.
“Rachel, right?” I walked in and drew the curtain shut.
“I’m so glad you’ve come.” I thought she looked past me for a split second, as if she’d seen someone behind me, and I half-turned to see if there was. Nothing but the white nylon curtain, swaying slowly.
She said again, “I’m so glad you’ve come.”
I smiled my best chaplain smile, warm but distant and came to stand beside the gurney. “How are you doing?”
“They’re going to discharge me in a little bit,” she said, then, “You probably don’t remember me.” She gave me a half-smile, and I knew she was saving me the embarrassment of trying to fake it.
“I’m sorry,” I said, awkwardly. “I actually don’t.”
“You’d be the easy one to remember. Debate club champion, volleyball team captain, yearbook editor. Everybody liked you. I, on the other hand, stayed as small and unnoticeable as possible.”
It was a moment before she spoke again. “You’re wondering, I’m sure, why I asked for you.” She seemed to be choosing her words with great care, and I let her take all the time she needed.
“You were kind to me,” she continued. “I was a scared kid from a small town up north, a fifteen-year-old in a big high school, and you were a senior that year. My mother and I had moved to Brady the year before — she and my father had been fighting nonstop, mostly about her drinking. Home was a war zone.”
“That must have been difficult.” A canned response meant to mirror the feelings of the patient. I hated the words as soon as they were out, but I was finding it odd she hadn’t mentioned the fact she was in a hospital emergency room because she couldn’t breathe, and the omission made me feel off-balance.
She continued. “My mother convinced my father that she had a family friend here in Brady who was connected to an exclusive outpatient treatment program — my mother’s parents were very well-to-do, and she never let my father forget it — and she made a deal. She promised my father she would get sober, but only if she could bring me here with her. I begged her to let me stay back home, but I think she knew it would hurt my father more if she took me away from him. And he was so desperate that he was willing to trade me for her dangled promise of sobriety.”
Rachel fell silent, her lips pressed into a line. Then she continued. “It was a nightmare. Her drinking got worse. She’d fly into these horrible rages.” She worried a corner of the cotton blanket with her fingers. “And there were always these men around…” She trailed off, and I had the sudden impression of too many old ghosts in the room.
“One night I couldn’t stand it any longer. I called my brother, Weston — well, he’s really, my half-brother. He’s my father’s son from his first marriage. He’s six years older. It was grand having a big brother. I felt protected from everything.”
The thought of that kind of brother made me momentarily jealous.
“Anyway, I called and told him I didn’t know how much more I could take. I made him swear not to tell our father how bad things were, knowing it would cause a scene, and that would only make things worse for me. He promised not to say anything. I guess I thought I could convince Weston to bring me back home.
“The next month he came down for a visit, on the pretense it was for business. He works in technology, you see. During that week my mother couldn’t have been sweeter. She was on her best behavior. No drinking at all, no outbursts. It made it seem like I was the crazy one. Weston talked to her about getting me some therapy, and she agreed, so concerned. It was all an act, of course. After he left, all hell broke loose. She was livid, and of course, there never was any therapy.”
Then she sat up and grabbed my arm. “Freshman year, Brady High School, early spring, and just after the lunch period. I was behind one of the gym doors, crying. Everyone else walked by, pretending they didn’t see me. Perhaps some of them really didn’t. I’d gotten good at making myself invisible.”
She squeezed my hand. “But you stopped and came back and asked me what was wrong. You gave me a tissue from your handbag and stood with me for a while.”
“When the bell rang,” she continued, “you patted my shoulder, and said, “It’ll be alright.” Her eyes filled with tears.
I had absolutely no memory of her or the scene she’d described.
“It’s okay if you don’t remember,” she said, deciphering the confusion on my face, “but I’ve never forgotten your kindness.” She wiped her cheeks with the back of one hand and I reached for the box of tissues on the bedside table, placing it next to her.
She smiled and pulled one from the box. “You cannot imagine how delighted I was to see you were on staff here. I had no idea you’d gone into the ministry, but when I saw your name on the board, I knew you were the one to help me.”
“I apologize, my memory is so bad. To tell you the truth, a lot of that year is a bit of a blur. My mother was not in good health.”
It was an understatement. My mother had just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. My father, battling deep depression, had crawled into a shell, and my brother disappeared into the numbness of alcohol. I had a wild hope that I might get a scholarship to Duke, where I’d planned to study psychology. Instead, I ended up at NC State and lived at home, where things went from bad to worse, all of us dying that year to some degree.
Shoving aside my own ghosts, I asked, “How is it you think I can help?”
“I have a daughter,” she told me.
“Okay.” I waited. Then, “How old is she?”
“So, Rachel,” I said, thinking I needed to let her know I didn’t have any children and might not be the best person to advise her about her daughter, but she cut me off.
“I can’t tell you anything else about her,” she said. “I don’t even know her name.”
It was some moments before she spoke again, and when she did her voice was thin and sad. “That day in the gym, I’d just learned I was pregnant.”
Scattered pieces fell into place. “And your daughter was adopted?”
She nodded, and I tried to imagine her, just a child herself, birthing a baby girl who was taken from her and placed in someone else’s arms.
“The father?” I asked.
She shook her head and looked away. Then, “My mother had found a couple of men who would supply her with pills. They’d come over and there would be these parties, and…”
I reached out and put my hand on her arm.
“And sometimes, they…I mean, I was so miserable, so lonely,” she said. “So sometimes they’d slip me a few pills, and honestly it was so nice to just be able to float away…”
She raised her voice a little. “It doesn’t really matter about the father anyway, right? I’m her mother, I’m the one looking for her.”
The enormity of what she was telling me landed like a stone. I scrambled to think what to say next. “Rachel…” I began, but she interrupted me.
“Please, can you just help me find her?” she pleaded and grabbed my hand, her fingers holding hard. “I don’t know where else to turn.”
I had about fifty questions for her, but just then a nurse appeared with a clipboard and discharge papers to go over. I stepped back while she rattled off a list of instructions, that included making sure she stopped by billing before she left, and Rachel scribbled her signature at the bottom of page after page.
Then the nurse was gone, and I looked at Rachel and she looked at me.
I took a deep breath. “I may be able to offer a suggestion,” I said, slowly, dipping a toe into the waters of professional misconduct. This was a terrible idea. I could lose my job. Still, I believed Mark could at least help guide Rachel through the process, and I could hear in her voice how desperately she wanted to find the daughter she had never known, to affirm that she was real, that her decision had been good and true and that her daughter was safe and loved.
“I have some work I do that’s not connected to the hospital,” I said, picking my words as carefully as if stepping through a minefield, “and I might be able to put you in touch with someone who could help.”
In the next few moments, two worlds that ought to stay separate were about to collide.