Backroads Ch. 05

byAdrian Leverkuhn©

"Yeah; just can't seem to stay away from you." I went and sat by her on the bed; she looked exhausted, bright-eyed and feverish. "Mad, this is Jen. Jen, meet Madeleine. I've got some work to do, I wondered if you two might not keep each other company for a while?"

"Jim?" Jennie said hesitantly.

"Back in a flash, Jen." I said as I slipped out the door; as I walked back to my office I wondered what the hell I could do for the next hour or so to keep busy, then decided to walk down to the library and catch-up on some reading.

________________________

I made it back to Madeleine's room almost two hours later; I had been nabbed by an internist, paged to come to the ER and look at a kid the paramedics had just dropped off. Took longer than I expected, too, but it always does. I stood outside Mad's room, looked in the little window, saw Jennie crying, Madeleine holding her hand, so I walked back to the nurse's station.

I asked one of the nurses to go down and tell Jennie I would be there in a few minutes then stepped behind the counter to look over Madeleine's latest blood work. It wasn't good. At the rate her organs were failing now she might last a week, but I doubted it. The pain would probably increase this week too; morphine would just accelerate the process, bring on respiratory arrest. It was going to be a hard call.

I walked down to the room; Jen was sitting across the room now, her eyes were clear and bright. Madeleine seemed content, almost happily so, like some deep purpose had presented itself -- and she had been ready when summoned. I went and sat on her bed again, brushed the hair off her forehead, felt her skin. Hot and moist, a thin line of perspiration beaded along her scalp.

"Well, how'd you two get along?"

"Cool, doc. Did you know she's the lady the FBI has been looking for?"

"Yeah, I heard that last night."

"Doc! Really!" she chided. "You mean there's someone else!"

"No babe. You're the one for me. Always have been, and you know it."

"I know." She looked at me, her eyes brimming with warmth and sorrow. "You'll need someone else though. Soon. Isn't that about the size of it?"

I took her hand, looked her in the eye. "Is there anything I can bring you while we're out and about?"

"How about the latest issue of Modern Bride?" Madeleine said, smiling, and Jennie almost ran as she left the room.

"How'd things go?"

"Doc, she's pretty confused, you know?"

"Tell me about it."

"I would, doc, but she made me promise."

"Oh? Good girl. But really, you want anything while were out?"

She looked at me, her eyes full of childhood memories and Cracker Jacks and skipping rope on the sidewalk. "If you find some chocolate covered raisins I wouldn't complain any."

I squeezed her hand. "I'm willing to bet we can find some."

"Doc? Can she come back? Talk some more?"

"I'll see, Mad. I don't know what her plans are."

"Too bad, you know, about the cancer thing. She's a nice lady."

"Yeah, but sometimes we're lucky to get to know someone, even if it's only for a couple of days. Life's funny like that, you know?"

"I think I do, doc. Have fun."

She was telling me to have fun. Was she kidding?

_________________________

"What's her story, Jim?"

We had stopped off for raisins and now we were sitting at a seafood place down by the river; cheddar cheese soup and poached King Salmon with Hollandaise. Best goddamn food in the world, but today it was meaningless, irrelevant. Jennie had been shaken up, badly, talking to Madeleine; now her appetite was gone.

"I don't know the details, some of them, anyway. She was adopted by some folks, real religious, Catholic, when she was two or three. Never knew her parents, never wanted to, I guess. Her 'Dad' died when she was still pretty young; her 'Mom' still comes by every day when she gets off work. She's doing your laundry, as a matter of fact."

"What? Jim! Why didn't ..."

"Why didn't I tell you? It wouldn't have made a difference, Jenny. You know Madeleine; that puts a face on things. But the woman needed work, Jennie; I got together with some of the docs and we hired her. We provide medical insurance for her and Madeleine, and we're putting money into a retirement fund for her; she could probably stop now and be pretty well off the rest of her life. I keep the place pretty clean as it is; she does the laundry, changes the sheets, and has the television to herself all day. It's not a bad arrangement. Awkward sometimes, having to keep the prognosis to myself, but that was Madeleine's choice. Doesn't want to upset her mom."

"Jesus. And what is it? Her prognosis?"

"Confidential. Sorry."

"Jim. Don't."

I looked down, thought for a moment, wondered how best to say this.

"You probably want to say all you want to her in the next few days. Okay?"

Jennie pushed back her chair and ran to the ladies room. I stood quickly as she left, then sat down and leaned back; I looked out at Mount Hood, the snow-streaked cone resplendent under the noonday sun. Life just keeps on going, doesn't take time off when people die; gulls just keep wheeling around over the river, fishermen on colorful old boats unload the day's catch, waitresses carry treys loaded with food to businessmen taking time off for a hurried lunch, and in the hospital where I spent most of my life, people die, babies are born. None of it will stop when Madeleine dies, none of it. Time will only stop for her in that crystalline moment. For the rest of us it will just go on. For a while.

Jennie had been gone a long time; a waitress came by and I asked if she could check up on her. The waitress came back a minute later, asked me to accompany her to the ladies room; the manager was there, waiting. He seemed a little nervous.

"She's crying. Say's she's in pain. You're a physician?"

"Yes. She's with me. May I go in?"

"Ooh, yes. Please." He was biting his lower lip.

I could hear Jennie crying the instant the door opened; I went in, stood outside the lavatory stall.

"Jennie?"

"Jim. I think I'm sick, feeling sick."

"What's happened? Tell me what's changed?"

"I threw up. Blood."

"Do you feel any pressure? Top of the stomach? Under the sternum?"

"Yes. Both."

"Alright. Let's get you put back together. We're going to have to talk about this."

"Okay. Give me a minute." I could hear her in there gasping, then a roaring bout of diarrhea shook her. "Oh-no..." she groaned a moment later. "Oh, God no."

"Blood?" I asked.

"Uh-huh... a lot."

"Okay, Jen, lets get you out of there before you pass out."

"Yeah." She was breathing heavily while she sorted herself out; when she opened the door and came out she was whiter than white, her eyes red-rimmed and burning.

"Oh, no, not good..." I said when I saw her.

"Yeah, that's exactly what I feel like."

"Well. Need to know what it's gonna be now Jen. My place or the hospital."

"What do you think I should do?"

"Regardless of what you want to do, we need to know what's going on. Staging, if you're familiar with the term; then we need to talk."

"Alright, Jim. I'm with you."

"Are you now, Lassie?" I tried on an Irish brogue but it probably came out like Bogart with a sinus infection; Jennie laughed, said something polite -- like I shouldn't quit my day job. I held her up while we walked out to the car. We drove back to the hospital, but this time I drove over to the ER entrance and had an orderly wheel her directly to the triage desk.

"Jim, take this card; the number will get you the Charge d'Affairs at the embassy. They'll handle the financial end." I talked with the chief resident, filled him in; he took her into an examination room; a nurse followed with a tray to collect blood for tests. A half hour later the resident came out; found me at the trauma desk.

"She's pretty sick, Jim; she talk to you about her decision?"

"Yeah."

"You gonna try to change her mind?"

"If I thought that's what she really wanted, I might."

"She a friend of yours?"

"Yeah."

"Well, the labs should be back in a bit. I'm going to send her up for a scan and see how much metastasis there is; why don't you go up to your office. I'll call you in a while, when she gets back down from radiology."

"Did she say anything about admitting her?"

"She won't do it."

"Damn."

"You close; I mean, is she a good friend?"

"Close enough."

"Alright, Jim..."

"I'm going up to 5-D. Call me there."

"Right."

__________________________

I walked the ward, dropped in on a handful of patients, just shot the shit with 'em for a little while, then made my way to Madeleine's room.

"Hey, doc. Come in. Where's Maureen O'Hara? Or should I call her Miss Danaher?"

"What's that?"

"Mary Kate Danaher. You remember; The Quiet Man?"

"Ah."

"She's a neat lady, doc. I'm sorry, you know, about..."

"Yeah, yeah. I know. Hey, found some raisins."

"Good golly, fantastic. You know, if she's going to be around I'd love to talk with her some more."

"Yeah, I'll ask."

"Where is she?"

"Downstairs. In the ER. She crashed. At lunch."

"Oh, doc. I'm sorry." She looked at me, those quiet eyes of hers measuring me. "You like her, don't you?"

"I hated her yesterday. But by this morning? Well, I'm not sure now what I feel."

"Love?"

"I care, Maddie, I guess. But I don't want to get too close."

"Why not, doc? What's wrong with loving someone?"

"Oh, Maddie, I don't know. Nothing wrong with love. Just me, I guess."

"Funny."

"Funny?"

"Yeah. I never took you for someone so afraid of death."

"No? Why not?" We laughed at the irony, at the supple truths winging around the room.

"Hard to lose people you love."

"Not sure I could handle losing two."

"Two?"

"You, you twit!"

"Doc! You love me?"

"Always have, darlin'. You hung the moon for me, you know, a long time ago."

"That's sweet, doc." She looked away, I knew she was going to cry; what I was really afraid of, more than anything else, was that she might see me crying too.

"I gotta go, kid. Don't eat all those raisins at once."

"Sure, doc. Sure."

I made it to the nurses station before I broke down. So tired... so tired of losing, always losing...

____________________________

I went back to the ER; saw Jennie in the little room talking with a couple of docs, waited until they left then ducked in. She was sitting up, looked better, and she smiled when she saw me.

"Whew. Just in time to get me out of here," she said.

"What's the verdict?"

"Nothing new."

"Okay."

"They want me to stay, of course; say there are all kinds of new treatments."

"Yeah. There are. Did they mention how far it's progressed?"

"Yes."

"Don't suppose you're gonna talk about it, are you?"

"No. I did agree to come in tomorrow."

"Oh? Why?"

"I'm not well enough to travel, or so they say."

"Astute observation on their part, I assure you."

She laughed. "Some bureaucrat wants me to sign some papers, then we can leave."

"Yeah? Good. I hate hospitals."

"I'm glad. That means there is, after all, something in common between us."

"Well, I'll let you get dressed. I'll wait by the discharge desk."

I waded through a two year old People Magazine, then a Popular Mechanics that must have come out back when Nixon was in office. There were a couple of smartly dressed women standing nearby, men with cameras, too. The people who shuffled by seemed shell-shocked and wiped-out -- not by whatever had brought them to the hospital but by how much they suddenly owed the hospital. Jennie was wheeled out and signed something at the desk and shook the girl's hand and laughed; now, ever the politician, she waded into the morass of reporters that had suddenly, seemingly, and inevitably crawled out of the woodwork.

Lights flicked on, microphones were shoved under her mouth, and rather than fight her way through them she graciously turned on them and gave them all a nice performance.

"Where have you been?"

"I've always wanted to see this great land of yours..."

"Are you ill?"

"Yes, it turns out I have an aggressive cancer..."

"What are your plans?"

"I'm going to get well enough to travel..."

"Where will you go?"

"Home."

I wondered just where her home was.

_______________________

Their fury spent, the reporters faded away like fog on a warm morning. Jennie and I drove back to my place; I fixed a sandwich and opened a beer, Jennie had eaten, so to speak, in the hospital. A nice liter bag of glucose, I assume, and she said she had no appetite anymore anyway. I helped her into the shower after a while; waited until she was finished then helped her dry off and get into her little flannel robe, walked with her back to the living room.

The sun was going down; the lights of a high school stadium across the park outside the windows were on, the stands full of people, the faint drumbeat and rousing chords of a marching band drifted through the air. I realized it was late August, school would be starting, football games, school buses, kids on bicycles -- all of that would return, marking the passage of time as surely as the sun setting beyond the far horizon.

"You're sure I can't get you anything?" I asked while she sat, lost in her thoughts while she looked out the window.

"No, I'm not sure, Jim, but you've already given me so much more than I ever expected. Or deserve."

"There you... I don't understand something..."

"What? Jim? What?"

"Why are you so bad? Why do you think yourself so undeserving? You remember that first night? At McDonald... the lodge?"

"No. Well, of course, but I'm not sure what you mean. Of course I remember that night..."

"You wanted me to hurt you. I remember you said, if I remember, something like you deserved to be hurt. What was that all about? I just don't understand?"

"I know. I'm sorry."

"Will you tell me?"

"I may have to. Soon. I didn't really want to, but things have changed, haven't they?"

"Changed... how?"

She looked away, looked at the bright lights across the park and sorrow washed over her face. In the ebb she seemed battered, weakened, at a loss.

"Do you have any tea?" she said some time later. "Earl Grey?"

"Yes."

"Would you, please?"

She looked at me, her smile gentle yet full of unanswered anguish. And need.

"Anything in it?"

She shook her head, turned back to the lights and drifted off again, carried away in the sweep of her thoughts.

_____________________

She had an early appointment.

She wanted nothing to eat, but managed again to get some tea down. I helped her into fresh, clean clothes and down to the car, and we crossed town in silence. She seemed focused on the world around her -- but I knew it wasn't so -- there was just too much happening for her to drift along now. She was on the edge of a great decision; that much I could tell.

I wondered what I would do if she asked me to go back with her. To Ireland. What would I say? For that matter, what would I want to do...if she asked? She had said something to a reporter about going home...

I walked her over to the medical office building, told her I would come pick her up when she called. She kissed me on the cheek and I left her there.

I went up to 5-D, to the wards. Madeleine was holding her own, just barely, and yet she seemed a little more withered this morning, her voice thin and reedy.

"Saw your girl last night, on TV," she said when I came in. "She's a real politician, isn't she."

"Whatever that means."

"Liars and cheats. Isn't that what you always call them? Or am I forgetting something?"

"I've been known to, yes, uh, think that way."

"Changed your mind?"

"I guess. Maybe."

"Where is she?"

"Over in the office building. I suspect they'll give her some blood, try to talk her into a round of chemo."

"You been watching much TV lately?"

"No. Why? I mean, I heard about the missing thing. Anything else?"

"Oh, no, nothing." She looked away, avoided my eye, her voice seemed even more tired.

"How're you feeling today, Madeleine?"

"Madeleine? Ooh. You never call me that." Her voice fell again, to barely a hoarse whisper. "Gee, doc, how am I feeling? Let's see. I'm dying, right? How am I supposed to feel. Can you give me a clue?"

"So, alright, I give. How were the raisins?"

"Great, doc. Just great."

"Did you have any breakfast? Keep it down?'

"Scrambled eggs. Or powdered, or whatever they call that muck"

"It is pretty bad, isn't it?"

"Oh," she said with forced sarcasm, "you've eaten hospital food, doc?"

"I think they serve the same crap in the cafeteria. I know what you mean."

"Sorry, doc." She fell back just as quickly. "I'm feeling a little funky this morning."

"Yeah? Me too. Off balance."

"Yeah. Wish this would just all be over with."

"Do you? That surprises me."

"Really? And I thought you knew me pretty well, too."

"Yeah. A lot of people make that mistake."

"Doc, beat it, would you? I won't make it if you start feeling sorry for yourself."

"Okay, kiddo. You want Jennie to drop by later?"

But she had turned away from me by then, withdrawn to that place she went to when doctors and nurses became too much to listen to anymore. Where she went, I suspect, to get away from endless noise and blaring silence and questions of why, why, why. Where I very much wanted to be at that moment.

________________________

Jennie came out of the hematologist's inner office, a 4x4 gauze pad doubled over and taped tightly to her arm; she looked at me with a grim little smile on her face and took my hand when I stood to meet her. She kissed me on the cheek again, drew back and looked at me closely for a moment, then kissed me hard on the mouth.

"Feeling better, I see. This could be a good day."

"Yes. Yes, I feel much better now. And I'm absolutely starving for that soup I missed yesterday. Do you think they might be open today?"

"I reckon they might be," I said as I turned, offered her my arm. "Your carriage awaits, my good Lady."

"Very good, Jeeves. Drive on! Lead -- and I shall follow, spoon in hand!"

It started out to be a good afternoon, perhaps the best of this vacation. We talked; rather Jennie talked, and I listened. There were, it seemed after all, truths to be told. Truths I knew nothing of.

She told me about Yves, the rascally Frenchman who'd seduced her and dominated her, turned her sense of herself -- her self identity -- in on itself. She'd changed, she said, in unexpected ways as a result of the affair, but she'd discovered a part of her self she had never known, a part that had "turned her on, seriously". Everything had been different after that, she said. Everything. Her self had been redefined, reoriented, and in ways she hadn't known before, she said again; now she understood -- she had changed in ways she knew now had always been there -- just under the surface, waiting for release.

"I think I became a better politician, Jim, a better listener. I look at people now and I see two of them -- everywhere I look; the person they want me to see and the person they feel they desperately need to hide."

How can you be sure what you think you see isn't a projection of some sort? You see what you want to see, in effect."

"Because something inside me changed, Jim. Something basic. Radically basic. I'm different now, different than I was, different than I ever could be again."

"And me? What you saw in me..."

"It's still there, Jim. It's calling out to me, even now. You live in a world where control is illusory, fleeting at best, impossible more often the norm, yet you live in a world where people expect you to be in control. So you act as if you are. It causes a split, a fracturing of your personality, between the basic lie of your existence and the desire to repudiate that lie."

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