book sample

Chapter Two from Marguerite

When Collin first turned up with a lump on his neck that grew and grew, I had flown east to help my widowed sister. The diagnosis of cancer had held up my return to work for several days and my employer had not appreciated this. Within a week I was fired. I called Sophie, packed away my stuff, drove back and moved into her house. She needed to keep her insurance by keeping her job. She needed a stable environment for Collin. I had a bit of money saved and some unemployment insurance. In truth there was enough for the three of us but I hated the idea of being dependent on Sophie for pocket money. I hadn’t realized yet but she knew it. The first few weeks of diagnosis and treatment decisions had taken every bit of energy Sophie possessed and now, two months into Collin’s almost-a-year-long protocol, while the hospital routine had become a bit settled, she and I were groping towards a workable solution of how to live together.

When the weekend came I went to a nearby mall to look for shoes that wouldn’t cost much but would come with a shoe box. I don’t quite know why we didn’t ask around in Sophie’s neighborhood. Possibly because her neighbors were strangers to me, and being in the hospital so much or losing my job had made me wary of strangers for the moment. Sophie said much later she didn’t like to ask. The entire neighborhood would have gone out and bought shoes…  And besides she had thought it would be good for me to get out. I considered germs at the mall but Sophie told me not to worry and swore she’d throw me in the shower when I got home. I might have gone for a long walk outside but it was somewhat rainy and rather dreary. Maybe I wanted an excuse to go shopping, get out, do a new thing.

Wandering through the mall I found a bookstore which had a lovely book with pictures of crystals and no New Age text. Quite a feat I thought. I had looked in the phone book for rock shops but found nothing. Now, at the mall in a toy store I found to my surprise, a whole collection of polished stones, carefully labeled. Jasper, agate and the like. Hematite. Tiger eye. I bought a few stones and, totally pleased with myself, wandered on. I passed a jewelry store and then in the window of a knick-knack store, I saw an exquisite porcelain statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was such a surprising and merry statue that I fell in love. Mary was holding the baby on her lap. A bird perched on his outstretched hand and another on her shoulder. One of her hands held him on her lap and the other hand was held just under the hand with the bird. Too expensive for sure, I still wanted it. I turned away with a last look and almost bumped into a woman behind me. She smiled and said, “Hi, Sophie? Didn’t I meet you at the hospital?”

“Actually, I’m Sophie’s twin, Reat.” I put out my hand and she took it, still smiling.

“Genevieve Foley. I love that statue too,” she said. “It exerts a pull on me.” We both turned to look again and it made me laugh and feel friendly towards her. As I started to walk away my eyes fell on her shopping bag. Shoes, it said in large letters. Shoes, all over the bag and the bag didn’t look empty, at all. I started to blurt something and then shut up. Genevieve said, but in a very friendly way, “ What is so interesting about my shoes? You can’t even see what I bought. You look the way Theresa does sometimes when she wants something outrageous.”


“Theresa Brown, the art therapist at the hospital.”

It was a bit of a shock to me to be out ‘in the world’ and have someone so familiar with the enclosed world I lived in, also out there. I was being silly since the doctors and nurses and technicians – and art therapists – all had lives and houses and such, but I hadn’t thought of it too much.  “I need a shoe box for a project I have in mind.” The words were out before I knew it. I blushed and said, “Sorry, it just popped out.” And in an effort to be friendly and not admit I had said what I had said, I went on. “Have I met your child? I’m not familiar with all the faces yet. Sophie knows more people than I do.”

Genevieve looked at me and said, “No, you haven’t met her. She died some time ago.” As I was to learn in time to come, Genevieve didn’t like conversations to end with stricken people. I had no idea what to say next beyond, “I’m so sorry.”

She said, “Come have some tea with me and tell me why you want a shoe box. I am truly interested in the hospital, still. (She gave me a friendly look.) Gillian was ill for over two years so I feel like it is still my life… only it got cut off.” A weird little grimace accompanied this last. We sat down at a small table a short way from the window and I told her about Collin’s idea of a grotto, complete with shoe box and picture.

I expect I talked a lot out of sheer shock but it is also true that she understood exactly the problem I was trying to deal with, entertaining a sick child in a narrow environment. She contributed a few funny stories about entertaining her daughter who seemed to have been about twelve, and then she stared into space for a moment, looked startled, and exclaimed, “I forgot something. Will you sit here for a moment with my stuff? I’ll be right back.” Before I could speak she was out of her seat and gone, vanishing into a crowd of people passing just then. I sat there wondering about her and Gillian and finishing my drink. Then she was back.

She bent over her shopping bags, pulled out two pairs of really pretty shoes and put them on the table. “Here, check them out. I think you’re being cheated, you know. After all, if I give you the boxes you don’t get to do the shoe shopping.” One pair of shoes was a soft brown with flower shaped cutouts backed in tan, and pretty heels, not too high. The other was sage green, with four inch heels, a tiny bow, and extremely pointed toes. Quite luscious. Quite expensive. She was a very well-dressed woman, I realized. She was putting one of the shoe boxes inside the other when I finished examining her shoes and looked up. As Collin and I had surmised, four inch heels made for a large box. She put the nested boxes in a bag and handed it over. “I think that will help, don’t you?’ With a last friendly smile she was gone, almost before I had been able to say thank you, or tell her what I thought of her shoes. 

I picked up her bag and my treasures and headed home. I wondered if I could behave so generously and calmly if my daughter, currently non-existent, had died in the past year or two. If Collin…. My thoughts took an immediate right turn and considered instead the rocks I had bought, and the book, and the crowds I was moving in and where had I parked the car — this exit or that one through the anchor store.

When I reached Sophie’s house Collin was napping so I went and had a shower before showing Sophie what I had gotten. She looked at the book for a while with its lovely pictures and totally unfamiliar names; aragonite, selenite, azurite, sodalite. Then I showed her the polished stones I had found in the children’s store with their labels. “Magnetite? Is it really magnetic?” She started hunting for something to try it on. “We’ll have to keep it away from the computer.”

“Umm, I think it’s the monitor or something you have to be careful of.” I wasn’t being very serious. The week had been long and I would have been happy to nap after shopping. I tossed her a box of paper clips from a drawer near me. I was trying to remember what we had to do before Monday started a new week. “Did you go for groceries? Oh, no, of course you couldn’t — I wasn’t here. When shall we do it? Got a list?”

“My neighbor came to watch Collin briefly so I’ve done the groceries. Collin helped put them away. He said you meant to ask me to buy more pastina but he looked sort of guilty when he said it. What’s that all about?” She was dangling paper clips from the magnetite and enjoying the chain. Between us, unspoken, was a fact; if I had gone for the groceries I would have paid. She had tried over and over to give me money for the groceries and I hadn’t been able to take it. Pride, you know. So when she could get the shopping done around me she did. The casual conversation masked the problem.

“I made pastina the other day and spilled it and Collin and I nearly did somersaults on the floor. It’s incredibly slithery underfoot when it is raw. “

She dropped her magnetite and looked at me in horror for a moment. “When he was neutropenic?” I nodded. A fall like that for Collin would be dreadful since he would bleed unstoppably for what would cause someone else a simple bruise, his treatment having robbed him of blood clotting factors as well as red or white blood cells. We’d have been in the hospital for sure for a while. She didn’t say anymore or need to. We both knew I didn’t want to think about what might have been. Glancing down she saw the last bag and said, reaching for it, “Oh gosh, show me the shoes you got instead. What store did you go to?”

“No store and no shoes, just boxes. I met a woman — do you know or at least remember a Genevieve Foley? She had a sick kid.” My throat choked a moment. “She had been shoe shopping and gave me the boxes. Pretty shoes but she kept them, without the boxes.”

“Foley. Hmm. I don’t…. Funny, this box doesn’t feel empty.” She hefted it.

“There’s another inside.” I wasn’t paying any attention. I had picked up a piece of magnetite and was playing with it and the barrette from my hair. “Like my new hairstyle?”

“Reat, there’s something in here!” She had opened the second box and there was a lump of tissue paper. She picked it up and squeezed it. It was not the toe stuffing from the shoe, and actually now when I looked, I saw it was a different kind of tissue. “It’s hard.” She pulled off the tissue paper carefully and there was the Madonna from the window. I was speechless. Sophie admired it, asking unanswerable questions, and turning it to look from every angle, and I waited until the traffic jam in my head cleared, and the lump in my throat relaxed itself before I tried to say anything.

“We were looking at her in the window .. I was looking at her, the statue, and Mrs. Foley came up. She thought I was you and started talking because she liked it too. She’s really nice and we had some coffee and then she said she’d forgotten something and went away. When she came back she gave me the boxes. I guess I was distracted, looking at the shoes she took out — and they were cute.”

“We shouldn’t keep it? It looks expensive.” The uncertainty in Sophie’s voice was unusual but I thought I understood. To see the statue was to love it. And to have a desperately ill child was to learn to accept whatever people gave you.

“Anyway, I don’t know how to reach her,” I said.

The decision was taken out of our hands at that moment because Collin, wakening from his nap had come out of his room silently and was standing in the doorway. He saw all the items we had spread out, rocks, book, and boxes and was ecstatic. “My grotto!” He leaped into the room and started to run his fingers over the cool polish of the stones. Then he saw what his mother was holding and became very still though not less excited. He took the statue out of his mother’s hands and cradled it so carefully that words of caution died on her lips. He put it on the table and started trying the two different shoe boxes in various attitudes. Next he zipped out of the room and came back with glue in one hand and a plastic glass in the other. He had thought about his grotto far more than I had realized. He set the cup upside down, spread glue over it and was placing Mary on top before we quite realized what was up. Sophie’s hand flew out to stop him.

“Wait, Collin, wait. What are you doing?

“It’s a pedestal for her in the grotto.” He pushed his mother’s hand aside, put the glass in the upright shoebox and placed the statue on it. “Then we’ll decorate all around.”

Sophie detached the statue swiftly and started wiping the bottom. “Collin, listen.” she said. “If you want to decorate you must decorate first. How will you get behind the statue? This is fragile and you don’t want to be fumbling around.”

Collin’s mouth, opened to protest, closed. He considered the shoe box, picked up the glue and had a stone on the side before Sophie could say more. “Collin! You have to say thanks to Reat at least for bringing you all this.” She was really frustrated.

Collin looked at me and smiled. Then he put down the glue and threw his arms around me and said, “Thanks Aunt Reat! Specially for the statue.”

“It’s not from me, honey. Nor the shoe boxes.” I held onto him and told him about meeting Mrs. Foley while Sophie wrapped the statue and started to put away the rocks in the other shoe box. But when she was going to put on the lid he squirmed down.

“Keeping our supplies in there is a good idea, Mom, but don’t put the lid on. I got work to do.” He grabbed the glue again.

“Collin, I thought you could do this at the hospital if you were sick. And you have to think about how to do this and have glue lessons. And we have to figure out how to say thank you.” Her voice firmed up somewhat over this statement.

He looked at her and then said, “ No, Mom. This is to take to the hospital, not to make there, unless it isn’t finished. Show me about glueing. ….. Please?”

Sophie looked at me helplessly and then seeing from my face that I was going to be useless picked up the glue and started discussing using a dab not a tablespoonful. I went out to the kitchen and started dinner while I considered this development. Sophie and I had both assumed this would be an activity for Collin. Collin didn’t. To him the grotto was something to have and as quickly as possible. Collin was going to win this fuss, but there was nothing wrong with the outcome. He had clearly put a lot of thought into his pedestal notions and I was curious as to how it would turn out. I also knew we didn’t have nearly enough stones to cover the whole box and wondered what would come next.

At dinner it turned out Sophie and Collin had decided to paint the box and decorate the pedestal with what they had on hand. They would take a picture of it and give it to the clinic, who would presumably know how to reach Mrs. Foley. Sophie said she needed time to decide how to fasten the pedestal firmly in the box and Collin said that she had said that Daddy had always said that duck tape would do anything. She could have a little time to think about it before he started duck taping. It sounds a bit rude but he wasn’t actually trying to be disrespectful, only rather firm and grownup. It was interesting to watch.

Sophie took him off and put him through a sponge bath, changed the bandage on his line and put blood thinning heparin through it, gave him Bactrim, said prayers, and put him to bed betimes, ready for church the next day. We went early to avoid crowds or played tag team if she judged him too sick to go, or too fragile to run the risk of infection. I did the dishes, and sat down with the book I had bought Collin and studied it.

When she came down she was chuckling, “He has the statue by his nightlight. You’ll have to go see. What do you think Reat?”

We discussed it but the most important factor really was that Collin had his own idea about making the grotto and what it was for, even if we hadn’t quite realized what he was thinking, and neither of us wanted to squash him. We could maybe think up another activity for the hospital, but we couldn’t always make Collin take ownership. Sufficient unto the day seemed to be the basic position.

We considered the statue donor as well. Sophie thought she had met Mrs. Foley at some point. “The nurses don’t talk to much about other patients, you know. Privacy Act and all. I might ask around a bit among my friends. The Seilers have been there for a fairly long time. She might have known this woman.” Bobby Seiler had had a recurrence of his leukemia, as I knew, though his current prognosis was still very good. But asking about others was somewhat tricky … obviously. “Anyways, thank the Lord I didn’t have to give Collin a shot tonight and he’s very happy. I might sleep the night through in my own bed. Thanks for all your work, Reat.” Sophie was meticulous about thanking me for the dishes and such. I made a face at her and got up to go to bed. “Check out Collin’s room before you go to sleep.” she said.

I peeped into his room and got my own chuckle. Collin was fast asleep. He had placed the statue on a box near his nightlight which was itself in the shape of a knight. The box was covered with a bit of flowery cloth and all around it were his other knights, lined up facing the Madonna and behind them a whole lot of plastic animals from one of his toy sets. All were neatly arranged and turned to face her. The whole scene was charming and the Mother herself radiated joy as she held her baby and he played with the birds. We all had a good night’s sleep.

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