We’re excited to bring this novel by CatholicMom.com contributing author Sherry Boas to our readers, one chapter at a time. This is the final chapter of Until Lily. We thank Sherry for her generosity in sharing this book here and encourage you to check out the other books in the Lily series.
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Estupidez of Youth
I haven’t been outside since the day I was absolved. The November chill is setting in and it’s not so pleasant to be out anymore. I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever see that garden again. I wouldn’t bet that I will live to see spring.
But the last thing I need to add to all my shaking is a shiver. The bursts of cold that come through the automatic doors of the lobby are all the fresh air I can tolerate right now. Lily brings quite a large gust with her as she bounds through the sliding doors and swoops in on my neck with her enthusiastic embrace.
“Mommy, Mommy,” she’s trying to catch her breath. “You have any money I can have?”
“What for, Baby?” I say, trying to loosen her grip on my neck, so I can see into her eyes.
“I go on a trip to see Daddy.”
“The Daddy with the puppy.”
“Oh,” I say, gripping both her hands to pull myself to a standing position. “Did you talk to him?”
“Yeah,” she smiles wide. She puts her feet on auto-pilot, walking backwards in front of me at an intuitively perfect pace for my decrepit legs. “He call me on the phone.”
“Is he nice?” I ask.
Yeah. Very nice,” she says. “Can I go on a bus to see him?”
We’re halfway down the hall and I’m not sure I’m going to make it all the way to my room. “Hmmm,” I say. “I don’t know. That’s a long way. What did you two talk about on the phone?”
“Stuff,” she says.
“Lots of stuff.”
“Did he invite you to come see him?”
“No,” she says. “I gonna surprise him. From the bus stop.” She is so excited, she is squeezing my hands, almost to the point of pain.
“Well, I don’t have any money to give you for a bus trip right now, Lily,” I say. “And even if I did, that’s a very long way for you to travel alone, don’t you think? Maybe he can come and visit you sometime.”
“No,” she says. “He got no money.”
“He said that?”
“Yeah,” she says, easing me on to my bed. “What’s a janitor?”
“Someone who cleans up,” I say. “Can you put my feet up on the bed, Love?”
“That sounds wonderful,” she says, as if I had just told her a janitor was a kind of rock star. “He clean up at my other Mommy’s newspaper.”
“I thought he cleaned up at a school.”
“He say he clean up and Mommy write stories.”
All of a sudden, it all made sense. The book proposal Jen had written, like all good fiction, was based on a true story. She had fallen in love with the janitor of the Burbank Register.
“Lily, Honey, would you mind getting me some ice water?” I hand her Agnes’ crimson Fiestaware mug, left in my room after the last cup of tea we had together. Lily loves the noisy ice machine in the hallway outside the dining room.
“Sure Mommy,” she says.
“Then we’ll play a game of Clue, OK?” I say.
Agnes’ absence means that the essence of my existence has been reduced to the four hours between Lily’s arrival and the end of visiting hours. That is literally the only thing I live for. All day, I watch the clock between TV game shows and an occasional Bingo game.
The Parkinson’s has left my voice faint, which has contributed to a considerable amount of loneliness around here, where no one seems to hear you unless you’re speaking through a bullhorn. Lily’s a bit hard of hearing, but she’s always so close to me (she’d spend the day in my lap if I’d let her) she doesn’t have much trouble understanding me. I wish I could say the same were true for me as she was growing up.
While Jimmy and Terry were young, I never let them say that something didn’t make sense. Physics makes sense. Algebra makes sense. Traffic laws make sense. It’s just that you don’t understand them. One day, in my frustration to try to figure out Lily, I told her she never made any sense. “Yes, she does, Auntie Bev,” Terry argued, “You just don’t understand her.”
It was true. For months, I tried to figure out why Lily would ask for orange juice and then yell at me for giving it to her. Then one day she finally did the sign for “more” instead of screaming. “More?” I said. “I gave you some already and you haven’t drank it.” Back to screaming at me. This conversation played itself out four times a day for another year until one day I bent down to look into her face and explain it yet one more time. As I glanced over at the cup, from her angle, I finally saw what she had been so upset over for so long. Peering through the semi-transparent pink plastic, you could see the cup was only two-thirds full, not filled to the top as it appeared when you looked down on it. The way the cup was shaped, larger at the top than the bottom, it meant Lily was getting cheated out of quite a bit of liquid refreshment. From that day forward, I filled the cup to the top, expecting to have to mop up a few spills, but figuring it would be worth it to save my ear drums. Do you know, I can’t remember her ever spilling a drop. Which is more than I can say for myself.
“Not too full, OK, Love,” I tell Lily as she walks to the door to go get my ice water, though I know she won’t listen. Even to this day, she always makes sure anything in a cup comes right to the top. “My hands are shaking like crazy tonight and I don’t want to spill it.”
It’s mid-morning and a Monk rerun is playing in the lounge, but I can’t follow the plot line. I’m trying to imagine scenarios for the estrangement between my sister and the janitor. I can understand an unintended drifting apart over the years, but that isn’t the sort of thing that would require Jen to emphatically dissuade any contact with him. It wasn’t an ideal situation, was what she said. What did that mean? If it were anyone but Jen, I would have chalked it up to a class thing. What professional would want to admit they had an affair with someone who sweeps floors for a living? But Jen was exactly the kind of person who would. She did not see herself any better than anyone else. Not even me.
I am glad Lily might finally have a father, especially since she will soon be orphaned again. But I want to talk to Pablo Perez myself, to make sure he isn’t some nut case. And to tell you the truth, I really want answers to the mystery of my sister’s past. I want to feel a renewed closeness to her. To learn something new about her would be to acquire more of her. This is why, I believe, people share their memories at funerals. It enlarges the space that lost person takes up in your insides, like a rediscovered long-lost episode makes a film vault all the more cherished. As the days go on, I become increasingly desperate to recover this pivotal episode that ushered new life into my sister’s and destined me to live out the remainder of my days as the reluctant understudy to my sister’s role. But most of all, I have to know why she and this man parted ways. This will provide the answer to why I have Lily and he does not.
I got Pablo Perez’s phone number from Terry last week. Every day I want to pick up the phone. I just don’t know how to start the conversation with the father of my child, a man whom I have never met. I wish Agnes were here. Oh heck. I’m far too old to make procrastination practical. I dial.
“I’m Beverly Greeley. Lily’s Mom, uh, aunt. Jennifer Eagan’s sister.”
“Oh, yes, hello” he says. “Lily told me many beautiful things about you.” He alliterated his T’s like only people whose second language is English do.
“And you too,” I say.
“Ah, thank you,” he says. Terry was right. He is gracious and warm, and already I can see why Lily wants to step inside his life. I myself wish I could curl up on his couch with the Sunday comics and a cup of cocoa. I picture a small adobe-style home decorated with turquoise, orange and yellows and lots of inexpensive yet meaningful art on the walls, including a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“I just wanted to call and introduce myself.”
“Wonderful,” he says. “I’m so glad you did.”
I am not sure how this conversation is going to wind its way around through the small talk to arrive at the reason for my call. I am going to have to help it along.
“Mr. Perez, I am old and ill, and I don’t have much time left,” I say, “and there are just some things I’ve always wondered. I hope you won’t mind if I ask you, but if you do, please, just tell me it’s too personal and I–”
“Please, Mrs. Greeley,” he interrupts. “It’s OK. I am an old man too, and I have long ago put pride aside. What would you like to know?”
How could my sister ever have let this one get away?
“I just have always wondered,” I say. “What happened between you and Jen?”
“Well, of course, the most important thing that happened was Lily,” he says.
“Yes, of course,” I say. “But, how did it end? I mean, why did it end?”
He drew a long breath and released it slowly and unevenly.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Perez,” I say, “if that question is too personal–”
“No, no, no,” he says, quick and rhythmic. “That is a question I have asked myself many times. And the only answer that I have come up with is estupidez – stupid – how you say? – stupidity. The stupidity of youth.”
“How so?” I say because there is a long pause and I want him to go on.
“When we found out Jen was expecting a baby, it became very scary – for her and for me. We worked together, but we were from two different worlds. You know, many people would have not understood our love.”
I felt a wave of warmth flush through me when he said “love.”
“She was a very successful reporter, and I just mopped floors. Not even legally. I had a fake ID so I could work. I was sending every penny I could back to Mexico, so my family could have a tortilla and a bowl of broth to eat each day. And times were very difficult in America back then, Mrs. Greeley. I don’t know if you remember. But Mexican immigrants were not very popular. Many people came to see us as a very large burden on the miserable economy.”
A nurse pops her head in the door and notices I am on the phone. She squeezes her upper arm as a sign she wants to take my blood pressure. I nod my head and motion her in.
“Yes, I remember, Mr. Perez,” I say, rolling up my pajama sleeve.
“Jen understood us like no one else. She had covered our community. She knew us. We were not just numbers to her. We were people with real lives, real families, real hunger.” The blood pressure cuff squeezes hard. “And a real desire to live the American dream. I loved your sister, Mrs. Greeley. When she told me she was pregnant, it was OK with me. I had already seen my children in her eyes. I asked her to marry me. She said she would think about it.”
The cuff deflates and my artery produces the obligatory throbs that make all medical personnel shake their heads, reach for their pens and scratch frantic notes onto my chart.
“Jen never wanted anyone at work to know whose baby she was having,” Pablo Perez continues. “She said it was because of the policy of the company. We were not supposed to get romantically involved with coworkers. She said we had to keep our relationship quiet to protect our jobs, especially mine, she said, because I was already not very popular because of my heritage. Weeks went by and she never answered my marriage proposal. I assumed she didn’t love me. She would tell me all the time she was too old and I was too pretty – that’s what she would call me.” He let out a slight chuckle. “And she told me she was afraid that one day, when her days of youth were far behind her, mine would still be ahead. I thought she was trying to save my feelings, because I had no money. Then, one day she told me the baby had a disability. She assumed I would call off my proposal, but I did not. Still, she told me, she wanted to think about it. I don’t mean to sound vain, Mrs. Greeley but when I was a young man, women found me very attractive. Many woman would – how would you say – hit on me. One day, a young woman did and I did not resist. Jen found out and it was over. She was not the kind of woman you could cheat on, Mrs. Greeley.”
“That is certainly true,” I say.
“But she assumed I started up a romance with someone else because the baby had Down syndrome.”
“And did you?” I ask, shocked at my own brashness. There is a long silence. “I’m sorry, Mr. Perez,” I say. “For prying.”
“Maybe I did, Mrs. Greeley,” he says. His voice is tinged with sadness. “I don’t know. Maybe I did.”
I want to say something to let him know I completely understand. I get it. More than he will ever know. But anything I could say only sounds like wound dressings on a sore much too deep for gauze and white adhesive tape. It’s best to just move forward.
“Are you planning to try to see Lily?” I ask.
“Yes, I would like to,” he says.
“I know she would like that,” I say.
“Do you think she could learn to accept me as her father?” He clears his throat. “I mean, over time.”
“I think she has already done that, Mr. Perez.”
“You know, I always wanted to see her,” he says. “As she was growing up. Jen didn’t want that.”
“I know,” I say. “She told me.”
“She could never forgive me. She thought I was a two-timer, but she was wrong.”
I know that’s what they all say, but he has me convinced.
“I never fell in love again, Mrs. Greeley.” His voice cracks a little. “Not like that.”
I wonder what it would feel like to be loved like that.
“And without Lily, it’s like a piece of me has always been missing,” he continues. “I have always kept her picture in my wallet. I took it on her first birthday. That was the last time I ever saw her. It’s the way Jen wanted it. She didn’t want to keep seeing me.”
“The hallmark of a true Eagan,” I say. “Hard headedness. We were all blessed with it, I’m afraid, Mr. Perez.”
He lets out a chuckle. “Lily too?”
“Like mother, like daughter.”
“Uh-oh.” There is joviality in his voice.
“But your life will be rich, Mr. Perez,” I say. “With Lily in it.”
“I have no doubt of that, Mrs. Greeley. None at all.”
I sigh so heavily into the phone, I hear my breath rush back at me through the ear piece.
“Do you think she could –” Pablo Perez pauses to clear his throat again. “Do you think she could love me, Mrs. Greeley?”
I can tell it is a difficult question to ask, but it is easy to answer.
“Well, she loves me,” I say. “For some unfathomable and glorious reason, Mr. Perez. She loves me.”
Father Fitz comes by every couple of weeks. It seems he is coming specifically to see me. Maybe as a tribute to Agnes. He knows she would be happy to see him treat me like something other than the lost cause that I am. As he makes his way down the hall to leave, he takes his thumb and draws invisible crosses on the foreheads of the patients he passes. He does it in such a tender way, for a split second, I see Agnes. It occurs to me that Father Fitz is what he is largely because of Agnes. Small, bent, discarded Agnes – either by the power of prayer or power of suggestion – changed that man’s life and every person that comes in contact with him from now until he dies. He might already have changed mine, assuming it’s not too late to believe in such things.
I wish I could be like Agnes. But I have bragging rights of my own – a legacy fashioned from the remnants of my sister’s life. What could I have said for the meaning of my life if it hadn’t been for Lily? And Jimmy and Terry? Some nurse would have found my dead body in bed, and in packing up my belongings, she would have located an expired passport, an obsolete Blockbuster Rewards card and an old library volunteer photo ID. And she would have said to herself, “This was the essence of this woman’s life.” As it turns out, I have children to bury me, and they will speak for my essence. They will speak both with and without words.
I tell all this to you, my dear, beautiful Georgia – the woman who has made my Jimmy so exceedingly happy – because I want you to know what it is like to be the mother of a child with Down syndrome. I give it to you honestly, unwrapped and without sugar coating. It’s a difficult world to glimpse. But it is the world you will be thrust into if you decide to proceed with your pregnancy. I want you to know exactly what choice you are making – what you are giving up if you decide to bring this child into the world. And what you are giving up if you decide not to. I’m not going to tell you what I would do in your situation. I’m sure you’ve got plenty enough people doing that. I’m just presenting you with the facts as clearly as I remember them.
I hope you know how much I love you and Jimmy and Terry and Jake and all the kids. You have all made me so very proud – the lives you have chosen, the kind way that you treat people. My life is coming to an end soon, and I find myself wondering what’s next. Jen never did send me any postcards, so I’m assuming she’s having too much fun to stop and write. I’d like to think Heaven has a spot for someone like me and that angels will be there to greet me. One thing I know for certain. It will be Lily’s face I long to see before I close my eyes for the last time. And if that final wish comes true, at least I’ll have an angel to see me off.
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Copyright 2017 Sherry Boas