There was a certain kind of desperation on the faces of the family members in the waiting room. I must have counted twenty different faces, gathered close together, rubbing each others’ shoulders or offering up silent prayers. Some paced the small space, others leafed through the magazines on the tables, not really seeing what was on the pages.
I waited by the double doors leading into the waiting room, trying to stay out of sight through the little rectangular window. Dr. Colinth was supposed to inform the family of Mrs. Dunlan’s status. As her main nurse, and my shift almost over, he had asked me to be there.
Mrs. Dunlan was one of my better patients. She had been admitted earlier in the week for a stomach issue. Unfortunately she had suffered a heart attack while waiting to discover what was paining her stomach. She consented to undergo the necessary surgery, which lead us to this moment. I had been working for the past twelve hours and was tired and ready to head home.
I finally saw Dr. Colinth sauntering around the corner. I sighed with relief, holding her file out to him. He quickly read the latest notes before straightening his coat and pushing through the doors.
The waiting room instantly fell silent as all eyes turned toward us. The few people who had been pacing stopped in their tracks. While Dr. Colinth sought out Mr. Dunlan, Mrs. Dunlan’s husband, I glanced around the room at the rest of the gathered family.
Four generations of Mrs. Dunlan’s family sat around the room, the youngest of all was an infant girl being gently rocked in her mother’s arms. Little children who would usually be running around the room sat patiently and quietly next to their parents. Mr. Dunlan stood and walked over to Dr. Colinth, fear and hope mingled on his face.
Mr. Dunlan was shorter than Dr. Colinth by at least five inches. His face was creased with lines and dotted with freckles that stood out against his dark skin. He glanced from Dr. Colinth to me before speaking.
“How is she?” His voice cracked slightly, and he tried to cover it by clearing his throat.
“Mrs. Dunlan is resting comfortably. She is stable, and we are expecting her to make a full recovery. The next 48 hours are the most crucial.” With that Dr. Colinth walked back through the double doors. That was what I didn’t like about Dr. Colinth. While he was a good doctor, he lacked the ability to be gentle and often times forgot to be sympathetic.
I smiled, what I hoped was a reassuring smile, at Mr. Dunlan and his family before turning to follow Dr. Colinth back into the hospital. Before I reached the doors, Mr. Dunlan reached out and brushed my arm, causing me to pause and turn back.
“Is she doing alright? Really?” He gazed at me, his eyes pleading.
“I’m just a nurse, sir. The doctors believe she will make a full recovery. Right now, rest is what she needs.” He nodded as if my words had given him hope.
“Miss?” One of the older children, a boy with dark hair and eyes, probably nearing ten years old, was standing behind Mr. Dunlan, a picture frame clutched tightly in his hands.
“Would it be alright if you put this in her room? So she can see it when she wakes up?” He handed me the picture frame. Inside was a picture of Mr. And Mrs. Dunlan surrounded by kids. Behind them stood the kids’ parents, the Dunlan’s children. I smiled at the boy and nodded.
“This should be just fine. I’ll put it on the table next to her bed.”
“Thank you.” He wrapped his arms around my waist in a hug before his mother told him that he shouldn’t. I took the picture back through the double doors and leaned against the wall.
My shift was over. I took a deep breath and headed down the hall towards Mrs. Dunlan’s room. The noise from the various machines around the room were the only noise. Mrs. Dunlan lay sleeping in her bed. I placed the picture on the table by her bed, just like I told the boy that I would, the picture facing her so that she would see it when she woke up.
“You better hang in there, ma’am. You have a lot of people out there waiting for you.” With that I left.
After a very long day of angry patients and emotional family members, I was ready to head home for a much need shower and rest. As I climbed into my old beat up car, I sent out my own silent prayer that Mrs. Dunlan would pull through alright. Then I was on my way home.
I had two days off. Two days of rest. If nothing happened, I would see Mrs. Dunlan during my next shift.
Pulling into my driveway, it occurred to me why I cared so much about Mrs. Dunlan making a full recovery. She reminded me of my own grandmother. When she had been submitted to the hospital after a heart attack, there had been little the doctors could do. I was a child myself at the time, and I loved my grandmother very much. I remember sitting in the waiting room, my mom right by my side, waiting for her to come out and tell me that everything was alright.
My grandmother never walked out of that hospital. It was just my mother and I after that. It impacted my decision to become a nurse in the first place.
A memory of the young mother rocking her baby in the waiting room crept into my mind while I was getting ready for bed, and I sent up one final prayer for Mrs. Dunlan, her family, and all of my other patients. I fell asleep that night thinking of my grandmother and all of the fun times we had had when I was a child.
We finally took down the wall that separated the kitchen from the rest of the house. We even got lucky, it wasn't a supporting wall. Ryan was really relieved, especially since he doesn't understand why that wall was such a problem for me.
I barely got to see my mom and dad during Thanksgiving and then I missed the kids opening their presents at Christmas because I was stuck in that kitchen trying to get dinner going so it would be ready by the time everyone arrived. That's when I told Ryan that I didn't care if he understood, I wasn't missing New Years because of that stupid wall.
We called the professionals and they came right out, surprisingly. That's when we tore into the wall and discovered something that surprised us all. There was a small compartment behind one of the cabinets we removed. Inside we found a metal box and, once we got it open, we found a pile of old letters that someone had hidden there long ago.
It took Ryan a little bit to get it open. When we saw all of the letters inside, we were thrown for a whirl. The letters were stacked together with the earliest ones on top. As we started to look them over some more, we realized that they dated back to WWII and a little bit before that.
Once the construction team went home for the night, Ryan and I began to carefully read the letters. The first few sounded as though they were correspondences between two friends. The sender of the letters was a man named Hans and all of the letters were addressed to a young lady named Mary.
As we continued to read, we discovered that Hans and Mary had grown up together in Germany. I seemed that at some point Mary and her family must have moved to America. Based on the dates we could tell that some of the letters were from before the war had begun and had all been written in English.
Has and his family planned to come to America, but then the war broke out. For a while, the letters continued coming. Hans told Mary about what was happening with the war back in Germany. For nearly a year, there were no letters.
Then we read this letter:
I have news. I have been recruited to join the war effort. My position in the German army is a good one and I am greatly honored.
I don't know how often I will be able to write from here on.
I must tell you how much I love you. I wasn't brave enough to tell you before but now that I have been given such an honor, I feel the need to tell you.
Forever Your Love,
Ryan and I looked at each other over the letter. The paper that sat between us on the table was a little different than the other letters had been. For one thing, it was in much worse shape. The paper was coming apart where it had been folded and there were tear stains in a few locations. Besides that, this letter did not read the same way that the others had. In previous letters, he had expressed his dislike of the things that were happening with the war as well as his fear for those who were being removed from the cities.
Ryan thought that maybe Hans believed that his letter would be read by someone other than Mary before being mailed and therefore had written what was necessary. He also speculated that Hans may not have had a choice about joining the army. I had to agree with him. It was the only thing that made sense to me.
There were only two letters remaining in the little metal box. The next one was dated months later.
I have made a remarkable ally at my current post. He assures me that he can get this letter to you without it being intercepted. I hope that that is true.
I hate what I have seen since being recruited into the army. You would be ashamed of me if you knew half of it. I never asked for this. I will never forgive myself if I do not find a way to help these people.
My ally is helping to end this evil and has asked for my help. I've agreed. Anything I can do to help. It will not erase my guilt, but it will help someone.
I meant what I said in my last letter. I love you. I will always love you. If there ever comes a time that I can be with you again, I will spend the rest of my life trying to make up for the things that I have done here. For the things I have seen done and done nothing to stop it. I will work to earn your love.
Ryan picked up the last letter, the only one still in its envelope. He carefully removed the letter. Immediately we could tell that this letter was not from Hans. The paper was thicker and instead of the beautiful scrawl that Hans' letters had been written in, this one was typed.
Miss Mary Tybon,
I am very sorry, but I must inform you that Hans is no longer with us. After I helped him send his last letter to you I knew that you would want to know.
Hans assisted me in saving the lives of nearly fifty Jewish children who had been captured by Nazi forces. During our escape, however, one of the younger children stumbled and effectively alerted the enemy. Hans went to rescue the child and was shot. He managed to make it all of the way to the point where we would meet up with others who would help us to take the children away, somewhere safe.
With the enemy in pursuit and his injury, Hans stayed behind to draw the enemy fire away from us. Because of his sacrifice, all of the children made it to the safe location we had waiting for them. He will always be remembered for this brave act.
I am very sorry for your loss,
The name at the bottom of the letter was too faded to be read. I was in tears by the end of the letter.
We donated the letters to the local museum. I will never forget those letters, and though we never did discover if Hans' brave actions were ever recognized, they will now be known by many people. Ryan and I tried to local Mary Tybon but were unable to find any information. I wonder to this day if she is still alive? If she ever fell in love with someone else? I guess I will never know.
"Tag! You're it!" Laughter fills the area, bouncing off the brick walls and the swings on the far side of the grass.
"You can't catch me!" She bolts from behind a tree, weaves through the jungle gym and lets out a holler as Jason's little fingers come within inches of her shoulder.
The sun slowly slips through the sky, making its descent toward the rooftop. It's so nice to see them playing together one last time before the move. Kaylee didn't take the news well, I can still hear her crying after we told her that daddy got a new job, but that we would have to move away. We tried to make it sound exciting; a new town, a new school, new friends, and even a place for her to take those dance classes she has always wanted. It helped until we told her that we would be moving so far away that we wouldn't even be able to visit on the weekends. Once we said that, nothing else we said mattered.
Randy runs a little too close to Jason and gets caught. Kaylee stops by the swings to catch her breath, while Jason dashes behind the slide. She always was the fastest of the three of them. Penny says that I am biased because she's my little miracle girl, and I am, but she is the fastest. Of course, Penny would never admit that her boys are anything less than perfect.
Penny and I grew up together and our kids have been best friends since they were infants. When Penny found out she was pregnant it was such a surprise, even more so when she found out she was having twins.
I remember worrying that we wouldn't be as close after her boys were born. Gregg and I had been trying to have a little one of our own for two years when Penny found out.
Not five months after the twins were born, we were overjoyed to discover that we were going to have a little one of our own. Penny and Bill brought the boys to the hospital to meet little Kaylee and they have rarely been apart since.
"You wanna swing?" The smiles on their faces are the most amazing things. I can't believe we'll be leaving in the morning. I promised Penny that I would have them cleaned up and brought over before dinner was ready and I should be getting them ready to leave, but I am having trouble bringing myself to tell them that we have to go.
"Higher!" Penny will understand if we are a little late. I let the three of them swing until the wind is chill and the schoolyard cast in twilight.
"Come on you three. We're already late." Instantly the sounds of merriment and childhood delight fades. They make their way towards me, their shoulders slouched and eyes downcast. Tonight is the last time we will see each other until Christmas. The last time we will have our Sunday dinner together. The last time the kids will go to school together or come home covered in bruises and scrapes from some wild charade. This is hard on them, what they don't know is that it is hard for me too.
Green. Everything is green. The leaves on the trees, the grass, the bushes, the weeds. They're all green. Even the bench I am sitting on. Why green?
They're all different shades of green, granted. And, though I said everything is green, I guess it really isn't. There is the occasional flower and even the splash of color from a passing t-shirt or Frisbee. Oh, and the spider in the bush next to me. He's black with hints of brown and yellow markings on his back.
This little spider is actually quite fascinating. Firstly, he's huge, I'd say he is actually about the size of my palm when I include his legs. Without them, he's more the size of a quarter. He's hanging from the bush, almost as if he were grasping a rope. I haven't seen him move once since I have been here.
He has the oddest yellow markings down his belly. It almost looks like a design a bored teenager might draw in the margins of a notebook. It stands out in great contrast to the dark black of the rest of his body. Six of his long, slender legs reach behind him and hold him firmly in place on his little web-rope. The remaining two are thrown wide above his head, which happens to be below the rest of him. He reminds me of a photograph I once saw of a high diver caught mid-dive.
His web is gorgeous. This strands of silky smooth webbing combining here and there to create a wonderfully intricate design. The web is nearly invisible against the bush yet it is strong enough to resist the struggles of the insects it ensnares.
"Are you okay, ma'am?"
"You were sitting here this morning when I came through with my dogs. I just wanted to make sure you were alright."
"I'm just fine, young lady. I like to sit here on Sundays. Time just flew today. Have a seat if you like." The young woman hesitates for a moment before sitting next to me. She's wearing green. I figure I have had enough green for today. "have you ever marveled at modern architecture?"
"Yes, on occasion. Why do you ask?" She looks around trying to spy a building that might have caught my attention.
"I was just admiring this little guy's constructive abilities. Hard to imagine something seemingly so fragile can withstand such brutal destruction." I gesture at my spider companion and the young woman jumps off the bench faster than she was running when she first saw me. She gives me a funny look before leaving without another word.
I can't help it, I laugh out loud. That was worth it. She probably thinks I'm just some crazy old lady in need of assisted living from here on out. I guess it is time to go now. I say my goodbyes to the spider and start heading home myself
Image © Stephanie Tiner
I remember church as a young man. I would be forced to wear my finest clothes, my mother called them my "Sunday best". They itched and wiggled upward into places they should never be. She would comb my hair the same way that my Grandpa always did and make me wash my face three different times. Then right before we left she would have me blow in her face to make sure I didn't have bad breath.
She would walk to the kitchen and grab the dish she had made the night before, then we would leave. I tried to walk normal but my fancy pants always seemed to think that they would look better in my armpits rather than on my hips. I would walk beside Mama, sometimes holding her hand, sometimes not. She always looked her best on Sunday mornings. She would wear her best dresses and shoes and hats. She looked so different from when she wore her worn work clothes with her hair pulled tight on top of her head.
I remember one Sunday more than any other. It was when I was eight. It was hot that morning and my fancy shirt was making me itch in places I could never hope to reach. I kept squirming in my seat, trying to make the itching stop, but it didn't help, all it did was upset Mama.
We always sat in the middle pew on the right side. After service Mama said she needed to speak with Pastor Jones before we went over to the potluck. I waited in our pew.
It was then that I Mrs. Brooks and Miss Stodarm came walking down the isle. I ducked down so that they couldn't see me. Mrs. Brooks was a cheek pincher and I didn't want any of it. When they got closer I heard them say Mama's name.
"Did you see that little boy of hers, squirming in his seat? You would think she would teach him manners, especially for a house of the Lord. Absolutely frightful." Miss Stodarm whispered to Mrs. Brooks.
"What do you expect? She can't even dress presentable for church." Mrs. Brooks made a noise like Mama made when she found mistakes spelling mistakes in the newspaper. I stayed quiet and didn't get up off of the floor until I heard the heavy doors at the front of the church close behind them.
I sat in the pew and thought over what they had said about Mama and her dress. Mama had worn her best spring dress. Little yellow flowers in a sea of early morning blue. I thought it was pretty. It wasn't stained or torn. I sat there quietly thinking it over until Mama came back.
"Mama can we just go home?" She got down on one knee and looked at me, the way she did when she thought I was sick. Then she placed her hand on my forehead to see if I was running a fever. When she was done, she didn't say anything, just offered me her hand and we walked home.
On the way home, I watched Mama. We didn't live far from the church so we usually walked. Mama seemed just fine, she smiled and held my hand and even pointed out a blue jay to me. She had been a lot happy since we received a letter telling us Dad was coming home, but she was usually happy.
"Mama, don't we dress presentable for church?"
"Of course we do, Honey."
"Is that why you make me where these itchy clothes?"
"Yes. Why do you ask?"
"Someone said we didn't dress right for church."
"Why did she say that then?"
"I'm not sure. Some people dress up for church in order the impress each other. We don't. We dress up to show God that we are thankful for all that he does for us and for all that he gives us. We also dress up for church to show God that we respect him. We don't dress up for the other people at church, we dress up for God."
"God cares about what we wear?"
"No. Not exactly. If we came to church in stained up work clothes, God wouldn't care, He would just be happy that we came. But since we don't have to wear stained clothes, we don't."
"What about what they said, though?"
"Their opinion holds little weight in God's eyes. You'll understand when you are older. For now, remember, God isn't worried about what we wear or what others think of us. He only cares about the choices we make and how we treat others."
I haven't been to church since Mama died. Until today. This isn't the same church, or the same people, but it feels the same. I didn't sit in the middle this time, I'm in the very back. I was late, but I'm here, and I brought my son with me. We're both dressed in our "Sunday Best" and they still itch terribly. But God doesn't care if we squirm a little, or if our clothes aren't the best ones here. He only cares that we came, that we listen, and that we care. I'm glad we came, I'm glad my son come with me. It's been a long long time.
It was the hottest day so far. My brand new pants suit slowly sealed itself to the inside of my thighs. Things just didn't seem to like they could get any worse ... until I missed my bus. I made it to the bus stop just in time to see it making a right turn two blocks down. The next one wouldn't arrive for another fifteen minutes, at least. I leaked frustration as if it were sweat,
An older man, probably in his mid-fifties, sat on the far side of the bench. He was handsome, given his age, his hair brushed back, proudly displaying a modest dusting of gray. He wore a simple button down blue shirt tucked into a pair of navy blue jeans. He leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees. He appeared to be staring intently across the street at, yet another, corporate office building.
"Miss the bus too?" He looked at me and I noticed his piercing blue eyes. He smiled at me, not a full smile, but one of slight amusement before answering.
"No, not at all. Just taking a moment to think on things."
"You chose the bus stop as a thinking spot? Don't you think that is a little odd?"
"Perhaps. I am not from around here. I find the city to be a little grating and noisy, to be honest. But, my daughter once told me that the bus stop was the best place to think about anything and everything. So, I thought I would give it a try."
"Well, when you miss the bus, you certainly have a lot of time to waste."
"Waste? I don't think that is what she meant, but I suppose it is a possibility." We lapsed into an awkward silence. He settled back onto his knees, staring across the street. His hands were clasped together in front of him as if he were praying.
"My name is Joan."
"George." We shook hands.
"Why don't you ask her what she meant?" He turned away from me, dropping my hand as though I burned him, and turned his attention to the sidewalk under our feet. A large crack ran between his worn work boots, stretching all the way to the street. A dark stain graced the cement under his left boot. His shoulders sagged and I was afraid I had insulted him.
"I can't. She died." He looked up at the building. "She loved this place. This city. I never understood it; her fascination with it all."
"Did she live here?"
"She was attending the university. Creative writing major. Wanted to work for a publishing company; write her own novel; be the first one to read other's work." he chuckled. "She was always writing something or talking in little riddles. The way she described the sunset against the buildings out her window, you could see it. Really see it." He smiled at me. "I guess that might not make sense."
"Yes, yes it does. So, you came here to think about her?"
"Yes and no. I want to understand something. Something she wrote in her last letter home. She said she had come to understand the world. The world was normal and beautiful and perfect, yet strange and broken and ugly. Two days later, we got a call saying she was in ICU. I never got the chance to ask her about it."
"The police said it was a mugging gone wrong. They said she fought back and the mugger's gun went off." He shrugged.
"I am so sorry for your loss." There was silence for a minute. "Do you understand what she meant yet?"
"I don't know. I don't know if I ever will."
I looked at the building across from us. It's wasn't beautiful, but it wasn't ugly either. It looked like a lot of other buildings in our city. Colorless with sleek lines and perfect edges. A model of symmetry. The sky was bright blue overhead, the sun scorching. A slight breeze blew an old grocery bag through the gutter. Was the world beautiful and ugly? Whole yet broken? Normal and strange?
Just then the next bus pulled up to the curb; the doors slid open with a loud squeal. I rose from the bench and tucked my purse under my arm.
"I hope you figure it out."
"Same here." I climbed the dirty steps into the bus and paid my fare. There was a seat open, facing the bench where he sat. I wondered how long he would sit there, staring at the building across the street, the weird stain under his boot. I couldn't help but ponder his daughter's words on the ride home. Could something be beautiful and ugly, broken yet whole?
Every great story means something to someone.
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