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In Dahlia's Wake
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On a Friday morning in early December, Naomi Wechsler walked up Seventh Avenue, head bent slightly forward, umbrella positioned in front of her like a shield. It was wet and sleety and the umbrella kept getting pulled inside out by gusts -- brief but sharp -- of winter wind. Still, Naomi prevailed. She was on her way to Holy Name of Jesus Hospital for her morning in the pediatric ward, and she didn't want to get soaked. The three mornings a week she spent at Holy Name had become the scaffolding on which her days were precariously balanced. Naomi was scrupulous about honoring her commitment there; in some small way, it was what kept her going.
Rick, her husband, didn't understand why she wanted, no, needed to go to Holy Name. He had asked her about it repeatedly, and when her answers failed to satisfy him, he had begun a quiet but penetrating campaign of reproach: small, exasperated sighs and looks, a certain clipped tone when he asked if she was "going up there -- again." But, then, it seemed that there were so many ways in which she had failed Rick these days. So many ways she could hardly count them. And he had failed her too. Still, she had resolved not to think about that today. She would not let herself.
As Naomi came to the corner of Sixth Street, she checked her watch. Only a little past nine. She was not due to arrive until nine-thirty. She decided to duck into Barnes & Noble to buy a cup of coffee from the café. There was free coffee on the ward and coffee sold in the hospital cafeteria, but Naomi knew from experience that the former was flavorless and cold; the latter, flavorless and hot. She had a little extra time this morning. She could indulge.
Shaking the excess water from her umbrella, she folded it up before stepping inside the double doors of the bookstore. Quickly, she made her way to the café and got on line. To her left was a table with a large display of Godiva chocolates: gold boxes tied with red ribbon and adorned with pinecones, the same gold boxes tied with blue ribbon and adorned with silver stars. Christmas and Hanukkah, the December twins, had arrived in New York. There were also foil-covered chocolate Santas with rouged cheeks and abundant white hair meant to resemble confections of a hundred years ago and mesh sacks of chocolate coins wrapped in silver and gold foil. Naomi picked up six sacks of coins and six Santas. She knew that several of the children on the ward had dietary restrictions forbidding them to eat chocolate, but surely there would be some who would be allowed to have it. And there were always the nurses. Her hands full, she stood patiently in line waiting for her turn.
There was a man ahead of her wearing a greenish-gray raincoat and a ridiculous-looking yellow rain hat, the kind of thing fishermen wore and was now found in J. Crew and L.L. Bean catalogs. The hat seemed to be too large for him and resembled, in some vague way, a hen that had come to roost on his head. When he ordered his coffee -- a double hazelnut latte with whipped cream and cinnamon -- she thought she could detect something familiar about his voice. When he turned around, she recognized him. Michael McBride, the head of the pediatric unit at Holy Name. The man who, last summer, had told her that her seven-year-old daughter, Dahlia, was dead.
McBride stood there, a cup of steaming, fragrant liquid in his hand. She saw at once that he knew who she was.
"Mrs. Wechsler." It was not a question. "It's been a while."
"Only five months, two days, and about ten hours," she wanted to say. But she didn't.
"I hope everything has been . . . all right . . . with you. And your husband."
"We're fine," Naomi said and moved past him. She could sense him still standing there as she ordered, but she didn't turn around again. Instead, she paid for the coffee and the chocolate and accepted the bags with which to carry them, all without looking at him a second time. She went over to a high, circular table to retrieve napkins, a stirrer, and a packet of sugar. It wasn't strange to run into him, of course. He worked in the hospital and now she did too. The only strange thing about the encounter was that it hadn't happened sooner.
Back outside, the wind was still blowing the sleet around in wet, angry gusts. Naomi reached the hospital's wide, automatic doors with relief. As she stepped inside, she opened the lid of the coffee, took a sip and then another. She saw McBride, yellow hat now collapsed under his arm, talking to a doctor right next to the large, lavishly decorated Christmas tree in the hospital's lobby. She stayed out of sight, so that she wouldn't have to speak to him. But even McBride's presence, painful as it was to her, wouldn't stop her from coming here. If she ran into him again -- and she knew she would -- she would find some way of being, or acting, that didn't rip her heart out. She knew she would be able to do it. Hadn't she managed to live through the last five months? If she could do that, she could do anything.
Although they had never discussed it, Naomi suspected that Rick avoided the hospital entirely. She could imagine him walking along Seventh Avenue, toward that well-stocked secondhand bookshop that had opened on Seventh Street, or toward Two Little Hens, the bakery he liked up on Eighth Avenue, always making sure that he was on the other side of the street.
Naomi herself wasn't entirely certain why she was drawn here. She told herself it was better than spending her days on the couch, her eyes tracking the progress of the light as it filtered into the front windows of the house in the morning and, later in the day, through the dining room windows in back. But that was only part of it.
This was the year she had planned to return to graduate school, for her PhD in English literature. Dahlia was getting older; Naomi thought that she could comfortably leave her with Rick when she took her classes or spent time in the library. After Dahlia had died, though, Naomi lost interest in pursuing an advanced degree. Yet she didn't want to go back to teaching either.
For the last three years, she had been employed at a small, tony private school in Brooklyn Heights. The neighborhood -- elegantly maintained homes of brick, brownstone, and limestone; tall, graceful windows with a glimpse of a chandelier through one, a sheer, patterned curtain at another -- was lovely. She liked the other teachers and the headmaster, the orderly routine of her days that included classes in the mornings, prep periods in the afternoons, and lunch with her husband when he could take a break between his appointments. And Dahlia had been enrolled there as well, in the lower school, so that Naomi's morning and afternoon commute dovetailed nicely with the dropping off and picking up of her daughter. But the teaching itself had worn her down, the room of jaded fifteen-year-olds, surreptitiously making calls or playing games on their cell phones, the girls exchanging notes or examining their hair for split ends.
And what girls they were. The leader of the pack, Cordelia Cox, was tall and thin-faced, with a cascade of black hair, a jeweled navel ring, and an uncanny ability to cow both her friends and enemies. Once Naomi had found her in the girls' bathroom, taunting Meg Stanton, one of her less popular classmates, with a handful of tampons. Cordelia had used lipstick to color their tips red; when Naomi had walked in, Cordelia was holding one of the besmeared tampons aloft by its short, white string.
The other girls were visibly frightened when they saw Naomi. Not Cordelia. The tampon was swaying a bit, as if she had been shaking or flicking it with her finger.
"What's going on here?" Naomi had said, looking back and forth from Cordelia's cool, composed face to Meg's tense, uncomfortable one. "Are you conducting a hygiene class?"
"I was just explaining to Meg about the differences in tampon sizes." She pointed to her selection, fanned out on the sink. "Super, regular, light." Some of the other girls couldn't help snickering.
"And the lipstick?"
"To make them seem more realistic. Aren't you always telling us to use realistic details, Mrs. Wechsler? To make our writing 'come alive'?"
"Well, class is over," Naomi said in a clipped, furious voice. She abruptly knocked all the tampons off the sink. "Clean this up. Now." The other girls quickly knelt down and began gathering tampons. "There's lipstick on the floor and on the sink. Someone will have to clean that up too."
Cordelia hadn't moved, though Meg had managed to inch away toward the door. Naomi looked over at her. "That's all right, Meg. You can go."
When the room was tidied again, Naomi dismissed the other girls but asked Cordelia to remain behind. The audacity of that girl. And the cowardice of the others.
"Throw that out," Naomi said, indicating the tampon Cordelia still held. Cordelia complied, but nothing seemed to penetrate -- or to alter -- the controlled, condescending look on her face.
"Was that fun?" Naomi asked when the tampon was at last in the trash.
"Was what fun?"
"Meg." Cordelia looked bored. "Meg can take care of herself."
"Evidently, so can you." Naomi sent Cordelia back to class with the others. Had she stayed any longer, Naomi thought she might have actually slapped her. Instead, she ran the cold water and splashed it on her wrists and face. She was so angry she was shaking. Later, she mentioned the incident to the headmaster, who commiserated and called Cordelia into his office. There had been a detention and some community service that the girl had been asked to perform. But somehow, Naomi didn't feel vindicated, only disgusted. She had had enough of these entitled girls, this school, this work. She needed to immerse herself in something altogether different. And after Dahlia had died, she found that something at Holy Name.
Here was a place, a world really, where time was told by the intravenous drip that administered medication, the distance from a room to an operating lab, the buzz and whir of the X-ray machines as they recorded their mysterious internal data.
Naomi did a little bit of everything: she wheeled picture books around on rolling carts, read Curious George Goes to the Fire Station six times to a boy waiting his turn for the dialysis machine, held the basin into which a fourteen-year-old girl vomited after her chemotherapy treatment.
"Good morning," said Pat Ryan, the volunteer coordinator, as Naomi came into the Volunteer Services office and hung her wet coat and umbrella on a hook on the back of a door.
"Hi, Pat. Did any new toys come in since Wednesday?" Now that the holiday season was here, Naomi had been put in charge of wrapping and labeling gifts for the children on the ward, most of which had been donated by local schools and businesses.
"There's a bag over there. See it? The big brown one with the handles?" Naomi found the bag and peered inside. On top were three Beanie Babies: a whale, a kitten, and an elephant. Adorable but hard to wrap. Below she saw several boxes of Crayola crayons, some thick pads of paper, a coloring book featuring the Power Puff Girls. "Do you have wrapping paper?" Naomi nodded. "Then you can work in here. I'm at a meeting for most of the morning. God help me." Pat walked by and eyed Naomi's coffee. "That smells good. You didn't get it here, did you?"
"No." Naomi smiled at Pat, who lingered for a moment in the doorway. "But when your meeting is over, I'll run over and get you a cup."
"It's so miserable outside."
"The store is just across the street." Naomi shrugged off the minor inconvenience. "What do you take in it?"
"Milk, sugar, the works." Pat smiled back. "Thanks, Naomi. You're an angel."
An angel. Naomi repeated the phrase in her mind. Rick wouldn't think so. Neither would her mother, Estelle, whom she had not long ago placed in that Riverdale nursing home. How was it that she managed to disappoint each of them, in such different yet equally damning ways? But here, at Holy Name, she was effective, competent, in control. Everyone seemed to like her, and to her own grateful amazement, she liked everyone she had encountered here: Pat Ryan, the beleaguered parents, overworked nurses, the army of physicians, the technicians and janitors. And the children. The children were what made the whole thing worth doing.
Naomi went to a cupboard behind Pat's desk, where she had stored the wrapping paper and ribbons she had purchased. There were two packages of red tissue. Good, she could use some of the sheets to wrap the Beanies, then she would find a way to secure the lumpy bundles with ribbon. Pulling the long tubes out of the bag, she surveyed paper with snowmen, with dreidels, with candy canes, paper that was nothing but a roll of shining, metallic green. Pat kept a small radio in her office; Naomi turned it on to an oldies station, and the strains of the Beach Boys -- that creamy, California sound -- filled the office.
For over an hour, Naomi unfurled and snipped, wrapped and labeled. Mets Monopoly and Scrabble junior. A plastic-boxed kit containing four bottles of nail polish, a nail buffer, polish remover, and ten snowflake decals, one for each fingernail. As she looped a length of gold ribbon around the wrapped kit, Naomi found herself thinking that Dahlia would have loved such a thing. She could endure this thought only within the confines of Holy Name; had she been at home or anywhere else, such an observation would have caused her to convulse with sadness, with weeping. But here, she was relatively safe.
She thought of the girl who might well receive this gift, Holly Munsford. A little younger than Naomi's former students, Holly was someone they nonetheless would have dubbed "all that." Which meant that Holly seemed to have everything: a lithe, athletic body, a blond braid that dipped down to her waist, a straight-A average, a boyfriend who was a high school senior. Oh and lymphatic cancer; she had that too.
"Pat?" Naomi looked up. There stood Michael McBride. Again. She had been working at Holy Name since the end of September and had not run into him until today. When she happened to see him twice.
"Pat's in a meeting. She told me I could use her office."
"I see." McBride stood in the doorway. He was as disheveled as she remembered, with the buttons on his white doctor's coat fastened incorrectly and several creases in his tie. "You're volunteering here now?"
"Since September." Naomi was still holding a pair of scissors in one hand, the spool of gold ribbon in the other.
"I hadn't realized."
"Why would you?" Her voice sounded colder than she meant it to; still, why was he here, taking up her time?
"I'm sorry." McBride's face reddened slightly. "I just meant that if I had known --"
"If you had known, then what?" Naomi put down the scissors, the ribbon. This man should not be here talking to her, stirring things up that she didn't want stirred.
"I would have talked to you sooner." His voice was firm, authoritative. She wasn't surprised. He was the head of a department after all. She couldn't have been the first mother of a dead child with whom he had spoken.
"And what would you have said?" An angel. Pat had called her an angel. But would an angel have used such a bitchy voice to someone who was, in his fashion, trying to be kind?
"I would have told you how sorry I was. Am."
"You said that already. In July."
"I would have said it again."
"Why? It won't change anything."
"Because it's true. I'm always sorry when we lose a patient."
"Dahlia was never your patient." It was a good thing she had put the scissors down; she had a mad but electrifying impulse to hurl them across the room, as if she were a turbaned and bejeweled knife thrower with deadly aim.
"As soon as she came through the doors of this facility, she was our patient," said Michael McBride. "They all are. Every single one of them." Despite the wrinkled tie -- Naomi saw there was a blurred, dark smear on it too -- and the crooked buttons, he seemed, in that moment, enormously dignified.
"Now I'm the one who's sorry." Her anger suddenly dissipated and left her drained and even a little weak. Coffee. She wanted another cup of coffee. And she had promised to get one for Pat, who would be back in the office any time now. Naomi stood and reached for her coat.
"Are you leaving? " Michael McBride fixed his dark, blue eyes on her face.
"Just for another coffee. Then I'll be back."
"I'll come with you."
"But you don't have a coat."
"It doesn't matter. It's not far." He took her elbow and guided her through the corridor and toward the doors on Sixth Street. As the doors slid open, Naomi saw that although the wind still whipped the wet leaves and bits of debris up the street, the rain itself had stopped, and the heavy gray clouds showed an improbable streak of sunlight between their large and threatening shapes. It was only when they reached the Barnes & Noble store and his hand left her elbow to open the door that she noticed she had not once recoiled from his touch.