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Collision with Destiny

Before Jen died, she gave each of her children a Bible. To Jimmy she gave the one she received on her Confirmation. To Terry, she gave the one Mom gave her when she left home, inscribed in Mom’s beautiful script, “We’re so proud of you, Jen. Always stay close to Jesus.” To Lily she gave the Children’s Bible that was given to Jen by our godparents when she was a baby. And she gave me the one she actually used, apparently on a regular basis. It had passages highlighted in yellow and pages that were accidentally creased. She had written comments and notes to herself in the margins. This I didn’t know until years later because I had kept it packed in a box of items she gave me just before she died. One day, when I was having a particularly bad day with the kids and I was really missing the carefree days of my childhood, I wanted to remember what it was like to have a sister. I opened the box. Stuck between two pages of the 10th chapter of Luke was a print-out of an Erma Bombeck column, in which the humorist asserts that God very carefully handpicks those who will be the mothers of children with special needs, judging them good candidates if they are independent and have a working knowledge of how to laugh. And when the angel asks God which patron saint to put in charge of the mother who is to receive the child with disabilities, God tells the angel that a mirror will do.

I remember a snickering scoff escaping my lips as I folded the column and returned it to its place between the pages, where it has remained ever since. All I saw when I looked in the mirror was a map of wrinkles, deep ones charted by misery, minor ones by frustration – all of a place I had no intention of ever going.

Also in the box Jen had bequeathed me was a photo of our family at the beach. Jen and I were quite small, maybe 4 and 6. We squinted into the sun with the corners of our mouths upturned, but not quite smiling. We were both wearing the same thing – yellow and magenta stripes on a one-piece swimsuit. Sand stuck to parts of us so it appeared we had been dipped in butter, rolled in sugar and baked. My right arm and Jen’s left leg, my left cheek and her nose. I remember how even behind the white vinyl shower curtain back at the cold hotel room, the suntan lotion and sand mixture weathered the warm water as well as you’d expect from a quality stucco.

The next thing I unpacked from the box was a senior high school year book. Jen was two years behind me in school and as I thumbed through the pages, I recognized quite a few kids, either because they had siblings my age or Jen was a friend of theirs. The most flamboyant signature was from Simon Bonfiglio, a boy in her grade who had a crush on me. He penned his page-long epic next to a shadowy black-and-white photo of himself playing oboe in the jazz band. He covered everything from the boring chem teacher to spilling spaghetti on somebody’s shirt and ended it with the directive, “Tell that foxy sister of yours I said 'hi’ and that Franklin High is not the same without her.” Next I pulled from the box a small clear plastic container with a dried-up rose, brown around the pedal’s edges with no hint of what color it used to be. It was our dad’s wedding corsage. I wondered why Mom gave it to Jen instead of me. Maybe she hoped it would bring her some sort of luck in finding a mate.

At the bottom of the box was an unfinished manuscript of a novel Jen had been writing. The sticky note on top said, “Dear Bev, feel free to finish this up for me. Love Always, Jen.” As much as I love to read, I’ve never written anything in my life aside from what I’m “writing” now. I always thought I’d have time to write after the kids grew up. Now I’ve got this Parkinson’s, which I can’t honestly use as an excuse, since all I would have to do is dictate it to my hand-held. I know it would be a great story if I could ever get it done. It’s a romance novel, but a sophisticated one. I was thinking maybe I’d have Agnes help me finish it sometime.

In her book proposal, Jen says she invented the story one day in the lobby of the hospital, where she was receiving chemo. I wondered why she would start a book after being diagnosed with cancer. A book is not a short-term project. She must have had hope for survival. Or maybe just wishful thinking. I know, for myself now, how comforting it is to have a project you have to work on tomorrow. Now I know why so many old folks crochet very large afghans. Since I can’t do that, I try to get the longest audio books I can find, like Les Miserables and War and Peace, novels I shied away from when I was younger because the task just looked too daunting from the vantage point of page 3. Now I realize I should have read them when I was young. I would have had a better chance of finishing them.

I lifted the cover letter to my sister’s book and read the summary, anxious to discover something new about her, hopeful that it might carry within its pages a code that I might use to crack some mystery of her life.

A young, attractive ICU doctor tolerates an endless parade of suitors – physicians and surgeons, who talk almost exclusively about themselves, except for brief interludes when they marvel at the rare good fortune of finding someone like her. Someone beautiful, yet intelligent, with the compassion and ambition to enter their noble profession. From this information alone, they are able to glean that she would be a suitable mate for themselves and quality mother for their children, or at the very least, a very interesting distraction from the stress of saving lives.

And so, Dr. Robyn Stanich finds herself in trendy, upscale restaurants, where the waiters, dressed in crisp white shirts, are (if it were possible) even more self-centered than her dates, speaking of everything in wordy, first-person possessive, as if placing food on a table gives you some kind of ownership over its greatness.

“My soup tonight is a pumpkin cream with duck confit. I also have some special entrees that are not on the menu. I have a tender ox tail over pan-fired polenta served with stewed lentils in a black currant gastrique. Also, tonight for you, I can offer my braised rabbit in a tangle of pappardelle with mustard and tarragon crème fraiche. I hope you’ll try to save room for desert, because I have for you, this evening, a delicious whole roasted fig with goat cheese ice cream and oatmeal tuiles, which goes beautifully with a glass of my collioure wine.”

Though she never lacks companionship, Dr. Stanich is a lonely soul. At least when you’re by yourself, you can think your own thoughts, summon memories and generate day dreams of your choosing. But being with someone who is disinterested is desolation. Self-absorbed people absorb more than just themselves. They sop the joy from your insides, leaving a dry, achy kind of loneliness.

There is one time of day when that dry ache subsides, giving way to a soft euphoria. It is when that sweet and complex music, unlike any the doctor has ever heard before, wafts from the first- floor lobby to the third floor ICU. The janitor takes a break from his duties every evening at 6 p.m., props his mop against the grand piano and pours out his entire soul.

One evening, as his fingers fly like flocks of swallows over the keys, he looks up, for no reason at all, except that he must feel someone’s eyes on him. He catches Dr. Stanich watching him from up on the balcony and can’t ward off his own small, self conscious smile. If he could read her mind from that two- story distance, while absorbed in a complicated series of staccato arpeggios, he would know that she wants to fall in love with him.

But there are problems with that idea. He is below her, not just by two floors, but in just about every other way as well. She surmises that he is probably about eight years her junior. He most likely has his G.E.D. and maybe a few community college credits at most. He probably spends too much of his meager wages on second-hand guitars. (Given musical genius like his, piano is certainly not his only instrument.) He probably has a balance of a couple thousand dollars on his credit card, which he doesn’t have any real hopes of paying off. He maybe even lives in a trailer. And then there is the great mystery that might very well be answered in a way that most rational people won’t abide: why the hands of a virtuoso earn him a living with brooms and rags and not with ivories and strings.

None of this really matters to the doctor, but she knows the slim odds of such a thing working out. He won’t understand her career, her drive, her long hours. He will resent her for making more money than he does. Plus, the entire hospital staff will accuse her of slumming and dole out slaps of snide congratulations on his back.

The following evening, the pianist glances up at the third floor to see if the doctor is watching. She is. Her elbows are propped casually on the railing and she gives him a one-sided smile. He smiles back – with his entire mouth – and though he is a good thirty feet below her, she feels his eyes burn into hers. She can’t even tell what color they are from up there, but she knows at that moment, a love affair has begun.

Even as old as I am, reading that made me want to fall in love. I can still remember the first time I saw Jack. It wasn’t a romantic encounter by any stretch of the imagination, but I still felt like I was in a fairy tale. He was the insurance adjuster who handled my case after I was involved in a fender bender with an exterminator whose truck was retrofitted with bug antennas. We would always tell people we owe our relationship to a giant roach. Jack wasn’t the traditionally handsome type. He was on the short side, a bit soft around the middle, but he had a tranquil smile and I immediately trusted him completely. I had never dated anyone I had trusted completely. Within the first fifteen minutes of filling out forms and answering questions written in dull legalese, I knew that I would say yes to him if he asked me out. In the next fifteen minutes, I began to send out vibes encouraging him to do so.

“I wonder how long it’s going to take to get my car fixed,” I told him. “I guess I’ll be staying home for a while.”

“Can’t your boyfriend drive you around,” he asked.

“Don’t have one,” I lamented.

“Oh, what a pity,” he smiled slyly. “Well, there’s always public transit.” He let several seconds go by as he looked down at his paperwork, feigning disinterest. “Or, uh, I could always give you a lift. Like to dinner or the movies.”

“That’s OK,” I said, coolly. “I’ll catch a bus.”

“Pretty girls like you shouldn’t ride buses,” he said.

“Oh, really?” I said. “I haven’t heard that one.”

“Well, it’s true,” he said, raising one eyebrow. “It’s really quite risky. See, you’ll get on at Union Street, and there’ll be no more seats left, and Prince Charming will give you his, and before you know it, wedding bells will be ringing.”

“And that would be bad because...” Fill-in-the-blank, Mr. Greeley.

“Because, for the rest of your life, you’ll sit in your castle and ponder what might have been between you and that dumpy-looking, yet strangely magnetizing, insurance guy.”

I laughed and stood to leave. “You’ve got my number,” I said motioning to the file, lying open on his desk.

“How are you getting home,” he asked.

“The bus, of course,” I told him. “You just better hope Prince Charming’s trusty steed is not in the shop.”

One thing Jack and I had an abundance of was humor. At least in the early years. Somewhere along the line, I stopped laughing at his jokes and sometime thereafter, he stopped cracking them. I began to worry about our marriage when Jack spent a majority of his words reminiscing. At first I thought he was just trying to share his past with the kids. But trips down memory lane became almost an obsession with him. Literally. Every time we’d drive by his old street, he’d tell the same stories. There was the Seven-Eleven where he’d stop to buy a Slurpee and a Ding Dong after school. There was the house of the girl that gave him his first kiss. There’s the park where he met his best friend. He talked about it with such fondness that I knew he wished he was back there – away from us. It was the same thing with music. He started to download all the music from when he was young, wishing the clock backwards. All of this I could not relate to at all. I didn’t have a bad childhood, by any stretch of the imagination, but my fond memories were extremely limited. Jack used to talk about how great it was to be a kid and not have to worry about anything. I worried about everything when I was a kid. And still do, I guess.

Jack would have loved his funeral. His two brothers and sister talked a lot about his childhood. They apparently loved it too. A typical number of tears were shed at Jack’s funeral, which was seven years ago now. But only one person wept, and that was Lily. She loved Jack so. His second wife sniffed into pink tissues and dabbed at her eyes. She looked pale and too exhausted to cry anymore. Her children sat one on each side of her and held her up. It looked like a Kennedy moment. Lily said after the funeral that they never should have dressed Jack in his pin-striped suit. He looked too uncomfortable. She said she wanted to be buried in her purple flannel pajamas. I thought that made a lot of sense until I pictured how odd it would be to wear your pajamas in public, especially when you’re the guest of honor and all eyes are on you. Lily sort of saw my point and then said maybe jeans and a sweatshirt would be better.

Regardless what she wears, I know Lily will definitely want to take at least one purse with her into eternity. When she was a kid, she would emerge from her room every day with about seven purses hanging on her. She had stuffed them with all her belongings, with no particular order that I could ever determine. One purse, for instance, would have a Lego piece, a doll’s baby bottle, a hair band, a shoe string, a paper clip and a broken crayon. Another would have a doll bootie, a Barbie hat, a hair brush, a Polly Pockets doll, a bandanna, a cotton ball and a price tag off a recently-purchased article of clothing. It was as if she were trying to cover her bases in case she happened to run into Monty Hall. And it typically broke down like this: a third of the stuff she’d taken from Terry’s room, a third from Jimmy and a third was her own.
Thankfully, Lily ended her career as a thief once she finally started making and spending her own money. The concept of personal property began to sink in and she shifted her obsession from thieving to giving. One month, she ended up spending the entirety of her salary on stuff for her friends and family. She stayed after work scouring the aisles for what she considered appropriate tokens of affection and gratitude. She gave me, for instance, a party-sized bag of Ruffles, a large silicone spatula, a 12-pack of Three Musketeers bars, a 36-count package of clothes pins, a pack of AAA batteries, a four-pack of cigarette lighters, a three-pound bag of Granny Smiths, a double-decker bus matchbox car and a six-pound sirloin tip roast. I had to sit her down and explain budgets. We suggested she limit her gift giving to one small token per paycheck. Ever since then, she has purchased the same two items every payday: a pack of Freedent spearmint for me and a bar of Irish Spring for her father. The gum is easily consumable, but at last count Lily has accumulated 375 bars of soap in a 35-gallon Rubbermaid storage box used by most people for camping gear and sporting equipment. I’ve tried to convince her she probably doesn’t need to buy any more. I will try once more today.

“I have to buy presents for Daddy,” she insists, “cuz I miss him. Soon I see him. I give him all the soap. From my heart. He gonna like it. The man on TV, he like it. He look jus' like my Daddy. So handsome.”

She covers her sheepish grin with both her hands. “He not wearing any clothes,” she whispers, her eyes twinkling with impish delight. “On TV with no clothes. That so silly.”

“Well, he would look even sillier wearing a tuxedo or a leisure suit or pajamas in the shower, wouldn’t he?”

Lily bursts into hysterics, tipping her head back, placing her hands on her head. Then she freezes and lets her eyes wander to the walls.
“When I gonna see my Daddy?”

“I don’t know, Lily. But one thing is for sure. If he is ever fortunate enough to have you in his life, he will be a very clean man.”

“Uncle Jack always clean,” she says. “He smell good. I miss Uncle Jack.”

“Me too, Honey.”

“Mommy, are you gonna die?”

“We’re all going to die someday, Lily,” I say.

“Like Uncle Jack. Like my other Mommy.”

“Yes. It’s part of life, Lily.”

“But, you not die soon, right?”

“I don’t think so,” I say.

I think about how badly Jen felt that she had promised Jimmy she wouldn’t die. I don’t want to do that. But I don’t want Lily to worry either. We are having this weighty discussion while Leah, the nurse who has come in to give me my night meds, counts pills in a paper cup.
“Five minutes, Lily love,” Leah tells her. “Did you have fun today with your Mom?”

Lily wraps her arms around my middle. “Mommy, I don' wanna go home,” she says.

“Why not?” I ask.

“I wanna stay with you.” She puts her arms around my neck and lays her head on my chest. “Can I spend the night?”

“I wish you could, Doll, but that’s against the rules,” I say.

Lily looks at the nurse. “Can I just stay a little longer?”

“You’ll miss your bus,” the nurse says kindly. “You don’t want to do that, do you?”

“I catch the next bus,” Lily says.

“But then you’ll be here way past visiting hours,” Leah says, “and someone will think you’re an employee and we’ll have to put you to work scrubbing floors.”

“I don' mind,” says Lily in a tone that every parent hears at least twenty-two times a day. “Please, can I stay?”

She is still talking to the nurse, but I think I better intervene to give the poor woman a break. I know how persistent Lily can be.

“You better go now, Lily,” I say. “It will be way too late when you get home if you stay any longer. That might not be so safe. Besides, I’m getting very sleepy.” I reached over and squeezed her in tight to me. “I’ll see you tomorrow, OK?”

Lily has tears in her eyes. “OK, Mommy.” She picks up her back pack. “You be here tomorrow, right?”

“Of course, Lily,” I say. “Where else would I go?” She smiles.

“Love you, Lily.” I blow her a kiss from my trembling hand.

Join us next Sunday for the next chapter!

"A Novel Gift: Until LIly" by Sherry Boas (CatholicMom.com) Background image via Pexels, CC0 Public Domain.

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