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Dead Ringer: Chapter Four
Link to Chapter Three.
It wasn’t heavy traffic that made my heart pound as I drove home, but my own pigheadedness, that persistent blind spot that far too often had tricked me into believing I knew what was best for other people. That and grief.
By the time I got home, I was so bone-and-soul weary I could barely hold up my head. The last sleep I’d had was the several hours I’d been able to grab Sunday before my shift at the E.R. Since then, I’d been going mostly on caffeine and fury.
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I scrounged in the fridge for some pickles and cheese, ate a handful of half-stale crackers, and ran a bath with water as hot as I could stand it, moaning as I lowered myself into the steaming tub, deep warmth penetrating my aching muscles and joints.
When I finally crawled into bed, I was out within minutes and slept hard. My alarm jarred me awake at six-thirty. I looked around my room feeling disoriented. Sunlight streamed in across the bed, making leafy patterns on my white walls. A chorus of birds sang just outside my window.
Today would be one of my hospital days, on duty from eight to five. A long shower helped to wake me the rest of the way. I guzzled some coffee and poured a big glass of orange juice — skipping my usual toasted onion bagel with cream cheese, since I’d caught a look at my butt in the mirror — and set out for St. Regis, joining the wide, fast-moving river of cars and trucks on the freeway. Fifteen minutes later, I turned in to the long, graceful hospital drive, glad to be away from the lane-switching, expletive-hurling insanity of Brady’s rush hour traffic, and followed the winding lane that was lined with flowering fruit trees and lushly blooming shrubs. I parked in one of the spots designated “Pastoral Care” and began the shift from skulking snoop to compassionate caregiver.
I took the elevator — empty, thank God — up to the Pastoral Care office on the second floor where our secretary, Mavis, gave me a hostile glance as I walked by her desk. She had the phone sandwiched between her shoulder and her ear, busily cross-checking the day’s surgery schedule, her short red hair rising in sharp points.
Mavis didn’t even try to disguise her dislike for me. She was a transplant, like so many Brady residents, having relocated from somewhere up north to escape the harsh winters. She was large and imposing with a chest that preceded her like the prow of a Coast Guard cutter, and she carried a good deal of randomly-assigned anger. Early on in our working relationship, she let me know that the jury was still out on women pastors, and that she believed a minister should conduct himself with a certain amount of dignity, which I did not seem to possess.
Fred Moseley, the soon-to-be-retired director of our department, wouldn’t be in at all this week since he was in Seattle for a conference. Hospital guys who can see retirement from where they are standing are likely to attend a lot of out-of-state conferences in locations with rolling green golf courses. His absences, coupled with a grandfatherly patience, provided a lot of latitude for my schedule.
I hadn’t actually told Fred, or any of my colleagues, about my other job. I’d had my own ethical struggles with it, but the work was too fascinating to stop. At St. Regis I knew I could make a difference, one person at a time and it felt good to be able to walk with people and help them through challenging and difficult situations. On the other hand, my work with Mark felt like I was helping people, too, only we weren’t so constrained in the process.
I promised myself I’d come clean with Fred when he got back. My deceit had been weighing on me pretty heavily.
Mavis glared at me just long enough to make sure I noted her disapproval and then turned her attention back to the sheaf of papers in her hand, yelling into the phone, “You people screwed up again.” I could only imagine the look on the face of the unfortunate person on the other end of the line. I headed down the hall toward my office as fast as I could reasonably go without scurrying like a little mouse. Once there, I settled into the routine of catching up on e-mail and returning phone calls.
When I could find no more excuses to delay I came out of my office and approached Mavis, who by now was off the phone and furiously typing. I was pretty certain I could stand in front of her desk until Jesus came back and she would stonily ignore me, so I cleared my throat and spoke first.
“Good morning, Mavis.”
“Yes?” she said, never taking her eyes off the computer screen, her fingernails on the keyboard making little clickety sounds.
“I’m wondering what the surgery schedule looks like for today?” I kept my voice even, suppressing a profound urge to reach over and smack her on the side of the head with the flat of my hand.
“You could look for yourself. The schedule is right there.” She nodded her head toward the desk to her right.
I already knew that if I had come out of my office and helped myself to the printout sitting there in plain view, Mavis would whip around and tear into me while repeating the instructions, for the hundredth time, to ask her about the surgery schedule, that’s why she calls downstairs every morning.
Most of the time I put up with her passive-aggression so I could get out the door and on with my work. On rare occasions, after an all-night vigil or at the end of a really long week, I’d snap back at her, but it always made things worse.
“I’ll try to remember that,” I responded through clenched teeth. I took the surgery schedule back into my office, made some notes and then returned the pages to her.
“Thanks. I appreciate your help,” I said in as cordial a tone as I could muster.
On my way out the door she yelled, “Hey! Don’t forget, you still owe me your monthly report. I’m not going to type the whole thing up at the last minute like I had to do for April.”
“Type this,” I whispered, offering a one-finger salute from the hallway, only half-hoping the security camera missed it.
The hospital was fairly quiet for a Tuesday morning. I opted for the stairs rather than the elevator and huffed my way up to the fourth floor to visit three of the pre-op patients I’d seen listed.
The rest of the morning I spent with twelve-year-old Jenny Malone. Born with serious heart defects, she’d endured three major surgeries and countless minor ones in her short life. Now her options had pretty much run out. There wasn’t much to repair in the way of a heart. The brutal fact was she needed a new one, and the clock was running out to find a donor in time.
Tubes snaked along her torso from the implanted Ventricular Assist Device that was doing the work of her failing heart. Beeping machines surrounded the bed. Her parents, Nora and David, were clearly on the verge of exhaustion, and I persuaded them to take a break and go downstairs to the cafeteria. It gave me a good chance to talk with Jenny. I pulled a heavy recliner chair beside her bed and perched on the edge.
“So, how are you?”
She looked at the far wall for a moment, honey-blond curls spread out on the pillow, and studied the kaleidoscope of artwork done by several of her sixth-grade class members. One in particular, featuring a frothy green tree framed by an apricot and lavender sunset, seemed to especially hold her interest. At last she spoke.
“I’m not afraid, Blainey,” she said.
I touched her arm. “You’re a brave one,” I said. “Any adult I know would be really scared of this kind of surgery.”
She shook her head and then turned clear blue laser eyes on me. “No, not the surgery. Of dying. I’m not afraid of dying.”
Her words hit me like a punch in the gut. I reached for her hand and she returned my gesture with a tight squeeze. I didn’t trust myself to speak. We sat for a moment in silence until a small sob escaped from her.
“I’m not afraid,” she repeated. “But I’m so scared for Mom and Dad. I just want them to be okay, and I’m afraid they won’t!” Her bright blue eyes filled with tears.
“Oh, honey,” I said, biting the inside of my cheek to keep from joining her.
She struggled to sit up in bed and tugged at the edge of the sheet, using it to wipe her face.
“I can’t let them see me like this,” she said, trying to collect herself, but stray tears kept leaking out.
I wanted to tell her everything would be fine, that kids don’t die and medical miracles happen every day, but she was too smart for that, and I hated trotting out that kind of drivel anyway. I had learned over the years that people, and especially children, have an amazing intuition about what’s going on, so why lie to them?
Instead, I offered her a handful of tissues, and said, “Jenny, you are by far one of the strongest, most amazing people I’ve ever known.” She gave me a small, lopsided smile.
“Now, I don’t mean to take anything away from you, but how the heck do you think you got that way?”
“You have strong, amazing parents, that’s how. You all are made of tough stuff, and that’s just the truth.” She nodded and dabbed at her eyes.
“We’re all hoping and praying and trusting everything is going to be fine, and you’ll be in the hands of some of the finest pediatric heart surgeons in the entire country. You’ve got good odds on your side.” I didn’t want to go any further, but I also knew Jenny well enough that she’d want me to.
“So, have you and your parents talked about this at all?”
She took a deep shuddering breath. “No,” she said. “I think we’re afraid to.”
“Well, if you weren’t afraid to talk about it, what do you think you’d like to say? You can practice on me.” I sat up straighter and looked at her.
“Okay,” she said and wiped her eyes and cleared her throat. “Well, for starters, if I die, Mom and Dad, I don’t want people crying or making a big fuss.”
I nodded. “Go on.”
“If I die, I want there to be a party with balloons and cake and fun stuff,” she said. “Remember Aunt Louise’s funeral? It was awful.” She wrinkled up her nose. “I’m pretty sure if I get to go to Heaven and I’m looking down, I’m going to hate hearing creepy old organ music and seeing people dressed in all that icky black.”
Behind us I heard a noise and turned to see Jenny’s parents standing in the doorway. Nora’s gray eyes bored holes into me, and her mouth was set in a jagged line.
“How dare you!’’ She bit the words at me, her voice shaking. David gathered her in his arms, and she started to cry.
“No, honey. It’s okay,” he said, holding her trembling body. He nodded at me and then Jenny. “It’s okay,” he said again.
We all held hands then and through tears said prayers for strength and healing. For a miracle. I hugged Nora, then David, and bent to put my arms around Jenny. She clung to my neck before releasing me, and as I pulled away I had to fight a large tide of emotion rising up inside.
I was almost out the door when Jenny called out in a weak voice, “Blainey!”
“I almost forgot to ask you! My thirteenth birthday is Friday and the nurses are giving me a party. Can you come? Three o’clock.”
“You bet.” I fished a pen from my pocket and wrote it down on the inside hem of my hospital jacket, my favorite place for keeping notes, and then came back to give her another hug, getting a sudden, cold stab of fear as I felt her breath on my cheek.
On my way back downstairs I said a silent prayer, putting in my nickel’s worth of advice to the Creator. “Listen, You. Twelve is way too young to die.”
I carry a good deal of anger about all the suffering in the world. I’ve never made peace with it, probably never will. But then what kind of person would I be if I could?
I headed to my office and spent the rest of the afternoon pounding out those damn May reports.
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