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Promises in Turbulence

It is still dark in the room when I feel a hand on my shoulder.

“Mrs. Greeley, wake up, Mrs. Greeley. I need to tell you something.”

Another voice comes, hushed and urgent. “Trina, no, don’t wake her. We’ll tell her in the morning.”

“No, this can’t wait,” the other voice counters. I blink my eyes, which seem to have snap-shut hinges.

“I don’t know if we can even get a van at this hour,” says the farther voice.

“What’s going on?” I sit up and try to focus on the nurse closest to me. I see the silhouette of the other against the harsh hallway light.

“Mrs. Greeley.” I feel a hand touching mine. “There’s been an accident. Lily is in the hospital.”

“What? What kind of an accident?” I ask. “Is she all right?”

“It was a traffic accident,” the nurse says.

“No, you must have the wrong person,” I lie back down and close my eyes. “Lily doesn’t drive.”

“Mrs. Greeley, she was hit by a bus.”

I jump up so fast, my head feels disconnected from my neck. “Is she all right? Where is she?”

“We’re trying to get you a van, so you can go meet her at the ER.”

“Please, please hurry.” I struggle to get my feet to the floor. “Please, help me get dressed.”

“OK, Mrs. Greeley. It’s OK,” she puts a hand on each of my arms. “We’re going to get you to see your daughter.”

“Trina, you might as well wait and see if we can get the van,” the other nurse says.

“Get the van,” I shout. “Please. I’m the only family Lily has. You’ve got to get the van.” My normally faint voice booms inside my head.

When I arrive at the hospital, a doctor greets me and asks if I am the only next of kin. I think he is hoping for someone to comfort me after the things he is about to tell me. Or maybe he is hoping for someone a bit sharper, who can grasp it all. I tell him my children are trying to get flights. He is a kind man, but speaks to me as if I were a child, apparently assuming my mind is as enfeebled as my body. He tells me of skull fractures, broken bones, bruises and brain injury. How much, only time will tell. The next 24 hours are critical, he says. He warns me that it is going to be difficult to see my daughter, and that, in fact, it might not look like her at all. There has been a great deal of facial swelling. There are bandages and machines.

I tell him I need to see her right away, that we have talked long enough. The doctor has adequately prepared me, but hearing about it and seeing it are two different things. If I were standing, I’m sure I would collapse at the sight of her. As it is, I feel the breath go out of me, like someone has punched me in the belly, and then comes a tingling in my hands and feet. The doctor is right. It doesn’t look like Lily. For a moment, I try to convince myself it isn’t. This is someone else’s loved one, and Lily is safe at home in bed. I wheel myself closer and suddenly feel as if my neck muscles have completely disappeared, leaving my head dangling just before everything goes dark.

I awake with an oxygen mask on my face in the ER. Now that all my vitals are close enough to normal, the nurse tells me, I will be transported back to the Manor House. She promises I can return in the morning, but I wonder where she got the authority to make such a vow. Lily’s not going to regain consciousness tonight, she says, so there’s no point in staying. I can do her the most good by resting, so I can be here for her in the days to come, the nurse tells me. She removes the oxygen mask from my face and helps me into my wheelchair.

I lay in the dark, back at the Manor House, tormented by the creaks and shimmies of my bed, which quiver in concert with my muscles until the blue-grey light of morning squeezes in around the heavy cerulean window curtains. I ring for the nurse to get me ready.

Agnes is sitting in her usual spot in the common area when the medic wheels me by her on the way to the van. “You’re going to see our angel,” she says, grabbing my arm. She puts her fist in my hand and drops something cold and heavy into my palm. “Take this with you.” It is a red glass-bead rosary with a gold crucifix. “It was blessed by John Paul II. At the Vatican,” Agnes says. “I was there in 2001.”

I plan to stick the rosary into the outside pocket of my purse when I get into the van, but for some reason I never do. I press the beads against my palm and find it comforting, like the comfort some people find in biting their bottom lip.

The city looks strange out the van window. People moving from point A to point B. Down the sidewalks, crossing streets, getting in curbside cars, standing at bus stops, riding bikes. I have spent so much time sitting in a very small corner of life that I have forgotten I once belonged to such a great vastness. The world looks foreign now, like seeing a strange civilization for the first time. My emotions are spent. I can only take it all in with a blink-less stare. I draw a long breath at the thought of Terry and Jimmy waiting at their airports in Denver and Minneapolis/St. Paul. They are due in the afternoon.

I hope the trip won’t be too hard on Terry. She has hated to fly ever since our one and only family flight, the summer after Jen died. On the way back from Disney World, we hit a sudden bout of severe turbulence. All the passengers were screaming and the coffee and pillows were flying and Jack was saying “wheee, a roller coaster,” to keep the children from being frightened as we plummeted to what the rest of us assumed was our fiery death. When it was over, Jimmy begged Jack to get the pilot to do it again. Lily repeated over and over again the sign for “more.” Terry cried for the rest of the flight, wrapping her skinny fingers around the armrests until all the pink drained out of them. When we landed for a layover in St. Louis, Terry refused to get back on an airplane. She pleaded with us to find a Greyhound bus. We told her it would take days to get home on a bus, but she didn’t care. She said she’d promised God that if he got her on the ground safely, she would never fly again. I told her I’m sure God understands that she made that promise when she was terribly scared and not thinking clearly. She told me it wasn’t the first deal she had made with God. She said she had promised God not to fight with Jimmy if he would make her mother well again. Terry wasn’t able to keep her end of the bargain for more than a few hours.

“Maybe God would have healed her if I would have been nicer to Jimmy,” she told me as people squeezed by us with their rolling luggage and carry-ons.

“Oh, Terry,” I said. “A lot of people feel guilty when their loved ones pass away, but there’s no reason to. When someone dies it is out of everyone’s control. Your mother’s death is not in any way your fault. It was just her time to go.”

“We have to go now,” said Jimmy, tugging at my sleeve. “Look, they’re closing the doors.”

Jack swooped Terry up before she had time to think any further and gave her a big smile. “Come on, let’s go watch an in-flight movie,” he said.

Jimmy took Lily’s hand and followed close behind.

I wish Jack could be there for Terry on her trip out here. If he were alive, he would have gone to get her. I know he would have.

The medic wheels my chair to Lily’s bedside.

“A little closer please,” I say. “Thank you. You can just wait outside for me please.” He hesitates before leaving. I’m sure he has been briefed on what happened to me last night.

I press my forehead against Lily’s arm. It is cold and clammy, and I want to adjust her blankets so her arms are covered, but I won’t have the strength at this angle. Besides, there is an IV hooked to her other arm. Her face is slack with sluggish muscle tone, and coming from her mouth is a large plastic tube snaking to the ventilator on the other side of the bed. The machine, which looks more like a piece of office equipment than a device that keeps someone on this side of death’s door, makes a rhythmic hissing sound, surrogate breaths for Lily’s lungs.

“Hi Lily,” I say softly. It feels strange talking to someone who can’t hear me. But it is equally strange being in the room with Lily and saying nothing. I remember the beads pressing into my palm. “Agnes sent you something.”

I lay the rosary across her chest and take her hand in mine. I hope for even the slightest movement. “She got it blessed by John Paul II. He was pope when I was young.”

Out the third-story window a cloud looms like a giant cauliflower over the horizon. I put my forehead back on Lily’s arm and close my eyes. Tears squeeze out past my eyelids. I feel like a paraplegic all alone in a dark cave. No amount of wishing it was yesterday, no amount of hoping Lily would wake up, nothing can change anything. The toughest part is that Lily isn’t able to tell me, the way she always does when I worry, that everything is going to be OK. I wonder, what would she have done if she were me? I press my eyes against my sleeve to dry them. I press so hard, I see those strange lighted images, like television snow on the dark orange screen of my eyelids. I press hard again and see Lily’s face, smiling at me, the way she did when she first noticed I had awakened after passing out. I realize how much I need Lily. Other people probably won’t ever get that. I’m not sure, until this moment, that I really ever got it. I always knew she needed me. But I really need her.

I place my hand on one of the large beads of the rosary that lay across Lily.

“Our Father.”

The words are uncomfortable, but the gold metal links that hold the glass beads together sound almost musical in the grasp of my trembling hands. My fingers move to the small beads.

“Hail Mary. Hail Mary. Hail Mary...”

When I get back to my room, Monique is gone. I wheel myself into the hallway and flag down the first nurse I can find. She tells me Monique passed away. I wheel myself back to my room and look at her bed. The room seems abandoned and wrong, even though Monique never said a word or moved a single finger outside the tiny space she inhabited under her blanket. I sit there and try to figure out why I miss her. I wonder if they would let Agnes move in. I wonder where Agnes is. I didn’t see her in the dining room. I remember today is mall day. A shuttle was going to Pacific Place. Agnes is probably over at Barnes & Noble, sipping tea and working her way through a stack of delicious new books.

Terry calls me on my cell to tell me she and Jimmy had caught a taxi from the airport to the hospital and are now heading my way. I wait in the lobby, as close to the automatic doors as I can get without triggering them to open. Finally, after a time of watching no one come or go, a taxi pulls up. While Jimmy pays the driver, I wheel myself through the doors into the drizzle.

“Oh, Auntie,” Terry drops her purse on the wet sidewalk by my wheelchair, throws her arms around me and sobs like a small child. My tears flow too. “Are you OK, Auntie?”

Terry and Jimmy have called me Auntie ever since they came to live with me. Before Jen died, I was Aunt Bev. They probably figured, intuitively, or maybe Jen prepared them before she died, that first names aren’t intimate enough for the person who has chosen to give up her life for you.

“It’s so good to see you,” I say, putting both my trembling hands on Terry’s arms. “Did you see Lily?”

“Yes,” she nods and wipes her cheeks and the dark rings under her eyes with both hands at once.

Jimmy politely squeezes in between us, takes my hand and kisses me on the top of the head. “You doing OK, Auntie?”

“Yes, I’m fine.”

“You look so tired,” Terry says, brushing a stray strand of hair off my cheek.

“Oh, it’s so good to see you both,” I say. “How are the kids?”

“Oh, they’re great,” says Terry.

“Ornery as ever,” Jimmy says. “Let’s get inside out of this rain.” He pushes my chair toward the doors, which open to release a large puff of warmth onto our faces.

“How’s Georgia, Jimmy?” I ask. “Does she still have morning sickness?”

“Yep,” he says. “And she’s just really tired.”

“Oh, I wish I could be there to help with the kids,” I say.

“We’re getting by OK, Auntie,” Jimmy says.

“Can I get you anything?” Terry asks me.

“No, I’m fine,” I say. “Would you mind if we went back to the hospital now?”

“Sure, we can do that,” Jimmy says.

Actually, no. We can’t. We can’t because I have to get out of my chair to go to the bathroom before we leave. A wave of purple, green and blue splotches wash across my eyes as I watch my feet touch the grey linoleum, and then a black curtain falls. Next thing I know, I wake up in my bed, and everything in the room is tinged orange with the setting sun. I look for Terry and Jimmy and call their names a few times before Agnes wakes up. She has dosed off in her wheelchair waiting for me to awaken.

“It’s OK, Bev,” she says, struggling to wheel her chair next to me. She takes my hand. “Jimmy and Terry will be back. They just went over to look about Lily.”

“Oh, drat it, Agnes,” I say sitting up and wrestling my feet toward the floor. “This stinking blood pressure of mine.”

“Now, Bev, you just wait a minute,” Agnes cautions. “We’ll ring for a nurse to help you get up.” She grasps the call button hanging from my headboard.

“Is Lily OK?” I ask her. “Did you hear?”

“I didn’t hear anything, Honey.”

“Where’s my phone,” I ask myself, rooting in the bedside drawer for my purse. “I’m going to call Terry and Jimmy and tell them to come back and get me.”

Nurse Nora, the one with the large neck and veins that pop out on her forearms, saunters into my room.

“What’s going on, Mrs. Greeley,” she says in a tone that is thoroughly bored.

“I need to get over to see Lily,” I say.

“You need to rest Mrs. Greeley,” she says unmoved. “Doctor’s orders. Maybe tomorrow. You ain’t going nowhere tonight.”

“All of my children are over there,” I say. “I’ve got to go.”

“Sorry,” she says, wrapping a blood pressure cuff around my arm. “No can do.”

“Agnes,” I say, handing her my purse. “Can you find my phone?”

“Who you calling?” asks the nurse.

“My children are visiting Lily,” I say. “I’d like to get an update. Is that OK with you?”

“Go right ahead,” she says. She let the air out of the cuff and dropped my arm.

“Thank you.” I take the phone from Agnes, automatic dial Terry’s cell and put the phone to my ear. “What’s my blood pressure?”

The nurse looks up at me from the chart she is writing on with a raised eyebrow. She might as well have said, “You talking to me?”

“85 over 55.”

That’s not bad,” I say, listening to the phone ring in my ear.

“It ain’t good neither – for someone who likes to pass out a lot. You’re not going anywhere tonight, Mrs. Greeley. Like I already said. Better yet, like Dr. Smythe already said.” She seems glad about it.

As she leaves, Terry answers. Lily has awoken and is asking for me. Agnes pieces two and two together from listening to my side of the conversation. She might jump out of her wheelchair and do a jig.

“You’ve got to come back and pick me up,” I tell Terry. I don’t tell her the medical staff has forbidden me to go. By the time she gets back here I will have it all taken care of. There haven’t been many occasions in my life when I have put up a fight. Most things just never seem worth it. But the staff at the Manor House on this night had better not come between me and that door. They had all better stand back. Way back.

I decide to save time by requesting to see a doctor right away and also the nursing home social worker, Claudia Vasquez. It is her job to sort out these conflicts of interest. Their risk management policies against my maternal instincts.

“Mrs. Greeley, I’m not trying to be unreasonable,” says Dr. Smythe, “but you could slip into a coma. Let’s give the medication some time to work and keep an eye on you tonight and see where we’re at in the morning.”

“Look,” I say, grabbing the doctor’s forearm. “I’m going to be at a Level I trauma center. If I have any sudden health issues, I’m sure they can take care of it.” Better than this incompetent staff, I want to add. But I hear my mother’s voice: “You catch more flies with honey, than with vinegar, Dear.”

“Mrs. Greeley, I think Dr. Smythe is more concerned about the trip to and from,” Claudia Vasquez interjects. She is leaning against the door jam, arms relaxed and folded across her chest, one high-heeled red pump propped on the other, in a casual, “no- need-to-get-yourself-all-in-a-lather” pose.

“Doc, come on,” I say releasing my grip on his arm and looking into his eyes. “Do you have children?”


“What if one of them was lying in intensive care, calling out for you, after having been hit by a bus?”

The doctor glances at Claudia and closes his eyes for a few second as he breathes in heavy through his nose. “OK, Mrs. Greeley. You win.”

“Thank you, doctor.” I want to pick up his hand and kiss it.

Instead I grab it and squeeze it.

“But stay in your wheelchair.” He says it like a sore loser.

I nod. “Of course. I will.” What was I going to do, go sprinting through the hallways of Harborview Medical? Handsprings maybe?

Dr. Smythe stands up and, without expression, heads toward the door. I grab my purse and drop my cell phone inside.

“Mrs. Greeley,” the doctor says. I turn to look at him. He and Claudia are standing together in the extra-wide door jam. “I hope Lily makes a speedy recovery.”

“Yes, me too, Mrs. Greeley,” says Claudia, smiling sweetly.

“Thank you,” I say.

“Everyone around here misses her,” says the doctor.

I nod and feel a tear sting the outer corner of my right eye.

On the way over, I think about what Lily might say when she sees me. She will probably smile and say “hi” and maybe reach her hand toward me. I can’t wait to tell her how much everyone misses her. But things we anticipate rarely ever happen the way we think. By the time Terry and I get to the hospital, Lily is so exhausted, she has fallen back asleep again. Jimmy had stayed with her while Terry was picking me up. He says she had been awake until just about a half hour before I got there. The nurse says it is not uncommon for patients with head injuries to sleep for quite a while after waking up the first time. She advises that we just let her rest. I so needed to talk to her – or really, to hear her talk. But it isn’t going to be tonight. I just hold her hand and whisper to her “I’m so glad you’re getting better, Baby.”

Terry has brought a scrapbook of old photos for Lily to look at when she wakes up. She thought it might help with the recovery process to jog old memories. She and Jimmy and I thumb through the pages as we sit in Lily’s hospital room, listening to the beeps and whirs of near-death technology. We find the page with Terry’s wedding. I had almost forgotten what Jack looked like. He was terribly handsome in his tuxedo. We all looked darn good that day. I don’t think Lily knew she could be so lovely. Terry had arranged to get all her five bride’s maids’ hair done. Embedded in Lily’s sweetheart curls were deep purple velvet ribbon bows to match her dress. All day, she would eye herself in mirrors, windows, anything the least bit reflective – just like a little girl playing dress-up.

It was the first time the kids had seen Jack in more than a year. He hadn’t sent for them that summer because he and his wife had taken a European vacation, and he said he’d just see them at the wedding. Lily spent as much time as she could – pretty much whenever she found him seated – sitting in Jack’s lap. He doted on her and told her probably a hundred times how pretty she looked. “I’m gonna look even prettier when I’m the bride someday,” she told him.

“I don’t know how you can possibly look any prettier, my lovely Lily,” he said, squeezing her tight and planting a kiss on her cheek.

“Terry look prettier cuz she wearing white,” Lily said. Ever since that day, she has wanted to be a bride.

“Well, I’m partial to purple,” said Jack. “Maybe I carry pu-ple flowers then,” she said.

“Do you have a fella picked out yet to marry?”

“No, no- yet,” said Lily. “I looking for someone like you. Or my other Daddy.”

That’s a statement Terry never would have made. She was still mad at Jack for cheating. Lily never understood the details behind Jack’s departure, nor did anyone try to educate her on it. She loved him so much, it was better that her love remain unvexed. Jack had the decency to leave at home his Margot, whom he said was sick with the flu and couldn’t come to the wedding. Strange to say about someone who cheated on you, but Jack always was a class act. I don’t know why, I felt very little animosity toward him. Just a tinge of embarrassment. I think he felt it in my presence as well. It’s as if we both failed at something.

Lily danced more than anyone at the reception. Jack, Jimmy and Terry’s new husband, Jacob, saw to that, along with all the groomsmen. At one point, one of them even cut in on the other. Lily was glowing. I thought about how different this all could have been if Jen were here. She would have given a speech that would have brought everyone to tears, even the caterers who didn’t know Terry and Jake from Eve and Adam. I would have been on the guest list as the adoring aunt, most likely arm-in-arm with Jack. I felt a strange emotion I can only describe as a close cousin of fear at the thought of that scenario. The what-if had momentarily robbed me of what I had come to treasure most. I literally shook my head to push it out of my mind. I watched my sister’s three children, all grown up, move about the dance floor at the helm of a joyous commotion, reassuring myself that they were indeed mine.

I raised my goblet, in a toast to thin air, just in case Jen had a way of looking down on all of this. If I had been a woman of faith, I might have felt a clink against my glass.

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