We’re excited to bring this novel by CatholicMom.com contributing author Sherry Boas to our readers, one chapter at a time. Each Sunday at 9 AM Pacific, a new chapter in Until Lily will be posted. 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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After four weeks, Lily has finally been released from the hospital. She is continuing to recover at home with the help of a visiting nurse. Now that Lily is out of the woods, my doctor has forbidden me to leave the Manor House. My blood pressure has been at an all-time low and all the symptoms of the Parkinson’s have worsened. The days without Lily are unbearable. I am beginning to understand the hell everyone else here in this nursing home is living through. People on the outside seem to think we don’t know we are lonely, that, like dogs waiting at the door for their masters to return, we don’t feel the passage of time. They seem to think we forget how we are supposed to be treated, that we are not fully aware of our misery, that our failing memories and eyesight somehow dull our emotions. People equate the elderly with small children and in many ways it is true. We are just as helpless and vulnerable. Neither one of us has a voice, so it’s easy to ignore our pain. Which explains the common practice of circumcising a newborn without general anesthesia. When the baby cries, we call it discomfort. It may very well be intolerable pain, but people have no way of remembering. We justify it by believing infants have a limited knowledge of their surroundings and that supposedly dulls the pain of the snip. For the elderly, their limited intellect must also dull their suffering. Wouldn’t it follow? But all my life, I’ve never felt the kind of misery that I live with every day Lily can’t come. The physical agony of Parkinson’s doesn’t even touch the anguish of loneliness. I’m not the only one who feels the void. I probably field the same question a hundred times a day. “How’s Lily?” I never grow weary of answering. I want to talk about her. It somehow brings her closer when I do. The thought of her is the only reason my feet touch the floor in the morning. The thought of her coming back. “We’re praying for her,” people say, in the same upbeat tone that you would tell someone you’re routing for their team. I had heard of prayer warriors before, but folks around here are more like Heaven’s cheerleading squad. There is a confidence about them that, if I didn’t know better, would make me think they know something that I don’t. That there’s only one possible outcome. That she is going to come strolling through that door any day now. Even Buddy, whose never been known to say a kind word to anyone wheeled past me one day and said, in a stale monotone, “I hope your daughter gets better real soon.” He said it like a man who’s been forced to make nice with someone he’s holding a grudge against.
Agnes is in the lounge playing cards with her priest. He is a tall man in his mid-30s, with dark hair and a worn-down Texas accent. There were only hints of a twang left, on words like “much” and “time” and “holy.”
“Hi ho, Bev,” Agnes says, more cheerfully than usual. “You remember Father Fitz.”
“Hello, Bev,” he says, standing to shake my hand. “Would you like to join us in a game of hearts?”
“Oh, no thank you, Father,” I say. “I’m feeling a bit under the weather.”
My hands are so shaky, the cards would probably fly everyhere. I don’t want someone I hardly know to witness that.
Father Fitz sits back down, and he and Agnes finish their game as I watch. Then the priest strikes the cards into a tidy stack.
“Would you like to walk outside in the garden for a bit, Beverly?” he asks me.
“I’m not sure I can make it all the way out there,” I say. I only like to go with Lily, who knows my gait well enough to diminish the odds of my falling.
“You can lean on me,” he says, offering me his arm.
When we get to the garden, Father leads me to a white wicker chair under a shade tree, even though it is overcast.
“So, Bev,” he says, “Agnes tells me you might need to talk.”
“Yes, she told me you had made reference to something you’ve been carrying around for a long time, but she didn’t know what it was, and she thought maybe talking to a guy wearing a Roman collar might help.” He smiles so large that a vein pops out near his left temple and I notice his crow’s feet for the first time.
I smile back. “Good old Agnes. She is a true friend.”
“That she is,” he says, putting one foot across the opposite knee and grabbing his shin with both hands. “I can even hear a confession, if you would like.”
“Well, that’s nice of you. I’ll have to come over some time. It’s Queen of Peace parish, right?”
“Yes that’s right,” he says. “But we could do it right here, too.”
“Here?” I say looking around. I don’t know why I find that so odd. It’s not as if we were at Kreielsheimer Promenade. He and I are the only ones outside. It looks like it is about to drizzle. “I don’t think I remember how to go to confession,” I tell him. “The last time I went, I was a teenager on a confirmation retreat and I don’t even know how many years ago that was, and I don’t remember how to do the math.”
“So, you just start like this,” he says. “Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s been far too long since my last confession.”
“Do I have to confess all my sins – for my entire life?”
“All that you can remember at the moment,” he says.
“You will be old and gray like me by the time I am through,” I say.
He lets out a hearty laugh. “I’ve got nothing but time,” he says. “And that’s not even mine, but the Lord’s.”
All of a sudden, I feel a little trapped. But his warmth has charmed me. I can tell he is a genuinely good person. He has trustworthy eyes, safe to look into and lay bare your soul. Not because he is wearing a Roman collar and is bound by the seal of Confession, but because that’s the kind of person he is. Whether he’d been a plumber or a priest, he would keep a secret safe and resist the temptation to form theories about what kind of person you are based on failings of your past. Still, I don’t want to say the words I have locked up in the basement for so many years. I don’t want to hear them out loud. I could go to my grave without ever hearing them.
Father Fitz is watching a couple of birds drink dew off the grass blades. As if that made him suddenly thirsty, he asks, “Would you like some coffee?” He stands and pokes his black shirt into his polyester trousers with his thumbs, stretching out his torso. “I could use a cup.”
“Sure, OK,” I say. “Thank you.”
“Cream and sugar?”
“No thank you. Just black.”
It takes him longer to return than I expected and I imagine he must have gotten caught in a conversation with someone inside. Maybe he’s even absolving sins. He smiles as soon as he comes into view, carrying two Styrofoam cups. His smile remains as he hands me one and sits down.
“You know, there are certain things in our past that once we say them they don’t seem so frightening anymore,” he says, looking into his cup of black coffee and swirling it slightly. “Look at it this way. People pay $120 an hour for psychotherapy so they can talk about all those things they’ve got to get off their chest. My services: free.” He winks as he holds the cup up, as if to toast his own cleverness before bringing it back down to his lips.
“Definitely a bargain,” I say, smiling. We watch the wrens fly on and off the grass. I wonder what he is thinking during the long stretch of silence. I am thinking how nice it would be to be one of those birds and fly away – not from Father Fitz, just from this place.
“It’s like a cancer patient who doesn’t want to take chemo because it makes them lose their hair,” says Father. “Then, they are, one day, in great agony when it becomes apparent that they are going to die and they could have done something about it.” He takes a sip of his coffee, blinking at the heat of it. “We’re all a little bit like that, Bev. We all suffer from the cancer of sin. There is a cure, but we don’t want to take the medicine because it costs us a bit of our pride. Confession is like chemo. You might lose your hair. But you will gain your life.”
“It’s just, you know, Father,” I say, “and I’m sure Agnes must have told you. No disrespect to you or your Church, but I’m just not much of a believer.”
“Well, faith is a gift, offered freely to all.” He takes another sip. “I will pray for you to receive it.”
“Thank you, Father.” I am sincere about my thanks. I actually would like to believe in something, especially at this stage of my life. And if anyone could order up a miracle, it might be this man.
“In the meantime,” he says, “you might as well make a good confession. What have you got to lose? If I’m right and there is a God, you’ll be able to set things straight with Him. If I’m wrong, you’ll still save yourself 120 bucks.”
“I’ll think about that, Father. But, in the meantime, do you mind if I ask you a philosophical question?”
“Not at all. But, just to warn you, I am not much of a philosopher.”
“But you are a wise man, I can tell, and I seem to lack wisdom. I have been asking myself this question for thirty years and I can’t figure out the answer.” I look into the sky and notice a cloud shaped like a turtle. “Father, are all promises meant to be kept?”
He places his hand on the back of his head and smoothes out his thick hair, gazing down at the grass. “If time stood still, perhaps. But time changes things.” He looks into the sky, at the turtle. “And yet, our words are the building blocks of our relationships. And if our words are eroded by the passage of time, how can our relationships stand?”
“So, you don’t know the answer either,” I smile.
He smiles back at me. “I know that God always keeps His promises. He is all-knowing, the Lord of all history, the Lord of the present moment and the Lord of what is to come. He is wise enough to know the promises he should be making. That’s not always the case with us, and yet, we must always try to imitate God in His infinite love.”
“So the answer is no.”
“The answer is to do what love requires.”
“How do you know what love requires?”
“I will pray that you are guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.” He grabs my hand and squeezes it until the warmth from his hand transfers to mine. “I am really enjoying our conversation, Bev,” he says, glancing at his watch, “but unfortunately, we’ll have to continue it another time. I’m scheduled to meet with a couple I’m going to marry.”
“Oh, how nice,” I say, trying not to look disappointed at his leaving.
“Would you like to go back inside?” he says, offering me his arm.
“No,” I say, patting his wrist. “I’ll stay here for a while and watch the birds.”
“OK,” he says smiling. He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a card. “Here, take this, Bev, and call me if you need anything. And tell Agnes I said good-bye, and I’ll be back to visit her soon. And you too.”
“OK, Father. Thank you.”
I watch him go in the door and through the lobby and wish I could say, “There goes my priest, my friend.” I look down at his card. On the front it says, “Father John Fitzpatrick O.F.M.,” his cell phone and the parish information. I flip the card over.
“All shall be for Him, all! And even when I have nothing to offer Him I will give Him that nothing. –Saint Therese of Lisieux”
St. Therese. Isn’t that who Terry is named for? I let out a small chuckle at the suitability of the quote. I definitely had nothing to offer.
Greta Schenck, who runs the cafeteria, interviewed me last week about Lily’s favorite foods. She has been preparing a handsome feast – well, as handsome as food can be at a place that deposits mashed potatoes on your plate with an ice cream scooper. It’s been seven weeks since the accident, and Lily is making her return to the Manor House. The staff has decorated with orange and fuchsia streamers and all the residents have signed a long computer-generated banner that says “Welcome Back, Lily. We Missed You!”
Agnes is playing lookout and tells us in a hushed voice the distinguished guest has arrived. A wave of welcoming voices rush at Lily through the automatic sliding doors and stop her in her tracks as if she’d just hit a wall. She stands stunned, mouth open, eyebrows up, looking around with quick jerks of her head.
“We all missed you so much, we wanted to throw you a party!” says Agnes.
“Welcome back, baby,” I say grabbing her hand and bringing it to my lips. My hand is trembling so much, it knocks her knuckles against my mouth several times before I manage a kiss.
“A party?” She smiles wide and shakes her head in disbelief. Lily is baffled by all the attention. What was the big deal, returning from the brink of death?
“A party for you, Honey,” I say. “We’re so glad you’re back.”
The shock wears away enough for her to bend over and squeeze me hard. I wanted to cry, I had missed that hug so much.
She gives them out freely to patients and nurses alike. She is working the crowd. Buddy wheels over to her, and without moving any muscles in his face, except for possibly one in his bottom lip, he says, “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
“Thank you,” Lily says, throwing her arms around his neck. He stiffens up and then his arms slightly relax and bend awkwardly around her thick waist. Everyone surrounds them, throwing looks of bewilderment at each other. Then comes a unison of smiles and a collective gasp as she kisses him on the top of the head. He wheels off into his corner and silently watches the festivities like a character in a wax museum. Every now and then, Lily looks over and smiles at him and he responds with a slight nod.
It is going to be absolute torture watching her walk out that door this evening. And every evening after that. What if something happens to her again? It’s like having an eight-year- old out there wandering around in the world alone.
I have asked Lily many times what happened the night of the accident. Did she not see the bus? Did she even look to see if anything was coming? Lily can’t remember a thing. But she swears she always looks both ways. Left, then right and then left again. So where did that bus come from? She doesn’t know.
“Lily, it’s important you try to remember, so you’ll know what happened and you won’t make the same mistake again.” I nag her once more – after the party is over.
“I don’t know, Mommy,” she whines. “I try my best.”
“I’m not blaming you, Honey,” I say. “I just want you to be safe. I can’t bear to think that could happen again.”
“OK. I be more careful.”
She says it as if I were asking her not to spill her juice again. Should I encourage her to make fewer visits? No, it would be pointless. She’d never listen to me. She loves coming here too much. But there is something else to consider too. Regardless of whether I decide to keep my promise to my sister, replacing me with another old person might not be the best solution. All the time Lily has spent with me is time she hasn’t spent with people her own age. What interests has she cultivated outside this stagnant nursing home? I can’t let her continue to invest all her time here, neglecting her own life. One time, many years ago, I read a comment on YouTube about how a teenager with Down syndrome grieved when his grandparents died.
“Every night for 16 years, Benny had ice cream with his grandpa, then his grandma read him a story. Then one day, she died. That was 4 years ago. So then, every night Benny had ice cream with his grandpa, went into grandma’s room, took down an article of her clothing, held it to his face, then sat quietly on her bed, waiting for his story, perhaps. Or listening. Now Grandpa is dying. Benny sits at the table and waits, his ice cream melting in front of him. Waiting for grandpa, who will never come. After a while he pushes the bowl away, untouched.”
I have to try to help Lily deal with my death before I die. “Lily, I think it’s too dangerous for you to make the trip over here so much,” I tell her. “I want you to cut your visits to twice a week.”
“No, Mommy,” she says, putting both fists on her chest. “It will hurt my heart on the days I don- see you.”
“No, Honey,” I say, trying to use my most reassuring voice, but realizing the Parkinson’s has robbed me of virtually all my abilities to communicate with any kind of expression. “You can find fun things to do. You know, you could go out with your bowling league or go to a movie with Gwenny. You could maybe even go on a few dates. Go out to eat with some handsome fellow.”
“But who feed you?” she asks. “And brush your hair?”
“The nurses,” I say. “That’s what they get paid for.”
“But you said you don- like how they do it as much as me.”
“Well, I don’t,” I say. “No one can do things like my Lily. But I want you to go out and have some fun.”
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I wanna be with you.”
“But, darling. You’re spending all your time here.” I reach out for her hand and she places hers in mine. “You know that I’m not going to be here forever, right?”
“Wha- you mean?”
I wish she would make this easier for me.
“Well, I’m not really well, you know,” I say, “and people don’t, you know, stay here forever.”
“You mean go to Heaven?”
“Like my first Mommy.”
I watch her face for a while. She is looking down at our clasped hands. One foot is folded under the opposite thigh and she is swinging the dangling foot back and forth under the chair. The sight of her eyelashes can still make me want to cry. Finally she looks up into my eyes.
“Wha- you gonna do when you see her?” she asks.
“I’m going to give her a big hug,” I say. “No, two big hugs. One from me and one from you.”
“Do you think God let me come with you?” Lily asks.
“You have a big, long life to live here first,” I pat her on the leg. “You’re going to do great things.”
“Wha- great things can I do?” she asks.
“Well, for starters, you’re the only person in the entire world who can be Lily. The world needs a Lily very badly.”
“Wha- about Heaven?” she says.
“What about it, Baby?”
“Heaven need a Lily? I can do great things there, too.”
This is definitely a conversation I have no credentials for. I’m not even sure there is a Heaven. Now I have to answer deep theological questions worthy of papal encyclicals.
“I think if Heaven needed you more than earth needed you,” I reason, “you wouldn’t have survived that bus accident.”
“Are you excited?
“For what?” I ask.
“To go to Heaven?”
I shake my head. “No,” I say. “I’d rather stay here with you.”
She looks puzzled and a bit skeptical and then smiles. “Now,” I say, bringing my face in closer to hers. “What two days a week would you like to come visit me?”
I learned early on that it was best to give Lily choices within boundaries. She is always more compliant that way.
“All of them,” she says with no hint of irony.
“But, remember, we just talked about picking only two days a week. Do you want to come Sunday and Wednesday?”
“No. Tuesday bingo night.”
“OK, how about Tuesdays and Saturdays.”
“OK. Tuesdays and Sundays.”
“Nope. Wednesday meat loaf.”
“Well, you’re going to have to give up something, Lily,” I say, almost beat down by the classic Lily stubbornness. “But you’ll find something else even better to do on those nights that you don’t come here. Now, pick two days.”
“I can’t,” she says. “My heart will hurt.”
“OK. See, look,” I say. “Today’s Monday, right? So why don’t you not come tomorrow and Wednesday and come Thursday. And when you come Thursday, I want to hear all about what you did on Tuesday and Wednesday. We’ll have so many interesting things to talk about.”
She is looking down at her hands, silently. “OK, Lily?”
I put my hand under her chin and lift. Her chin catches a slight tremor from my shaking hand. “I’ll make a call to Mr. Fox and see if he can drive you and Gwenny to the club,” I say. “You haven’t gone out dancing in a long time, have you?”
“Does that sound like fun, then?”
“OK, then. Will you do me a favor?”
“Will you dance the Macarena for me. That’s what I used to dance to when I was your age. Do you think they still play that one?”
“The Ma-arena?” She snickered. “I don- tink so, Mommy.”
“How about I Like to Move It?
She shook her head and grinned.
“Well, what’s your favorite dance tune?” I ask her.
Very appropriate for a young woman who has just survived a wrestling match with a city bus. I can’t believe disco has made a comeback for a third time. I thought it was bad enough the first time around.
“Mommy?” she says. “Maybe I stay away for a while, and you not tired to see me anymore, I come back every day.”
“Oh, Baby, I could never get tired of seeing you,” I say. “I’m going to miss you something awful. But I want you to have a good life. There is so much more out there that is better than this place. Why don’t you want to go?”
“Well, Heaven better than here and you don- wanna go.” Touché’, Lily.
I ask if she wants to play a game and she waddles over to the cabinet to get the Dora the Explorer Memory game. Even when she was just six, she could beat me occasionally. Lily places the cards face down in very precise rows, but stops halfway into the third one.
“Where’s Daddy?” she asks. “The Daddy with the puppy.”
She must be remembering the baby picture taken when her father brought his puppy to visit. The photo was of Lily and the puppy. Her father wasn’t even in the picture. But somehow Lily has never forgotten whatever she thinks she knows about him.
“Did Terry show you that picture while you were in the hospital?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says. “Daddy bring a puppy to play with me.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“I wan- him,” she says.
“No, the Daddy.”
“Finish laying out the cards, Lily,” I say.
“Terry will find him,” Lily says.
“No, Love. I don’t think so. Terry doesn’t know where he is.”
“Terry promise. She look for him.”
“Oh, I don’t think she would have promised that, Lily,” I say. “I think you probably misunderstood her. We don’t even know his name.”
“His name is Daddy. Terry look for him. She promise.”
When Lily leaves the Manor House that evening, I kiss her and tell her I’ll see her Thursday. But the next day comes and so does Lily. And the next. For a week, I gently remind her that she isn’t supposed to be here. She says sorry and promises she’ll try to remember not to visit the next day. The following Saturday, I feel safe that she won’t show up because I set up a dinner with her and Gwenny. Lily calls once before the meal comes and once at dessert. She wants to tell me she has ordered my favorite – cherry pie – and did I want her to bring me a piece. I wish I could say I would still enjoy it. But that part of my life has passed and will never return. Eating is now a chore, necessary to sustain life. I long ago lost my appetite for cheesecake and mashed potatoes, or anything that has a consistency which lays heavy at the back of the mouth while waiting to be swallowed. I would have to make several false starts at getting it to go down before it finally went, and by then the adrenalin had reached my hands and caused needles to go through them for fear of choking. For some reason, I had always had trouble swallowing that kind of stuff anyway, ever since I was in seventh grade and they made us sit through a movie in gym class on how to perform the Heimlich maneuver.
On every day I don’t set something up for her, Lily ends up here. I can’t continue to be her cruise director forever. I am running out of ideas. And I fear people will run out of patience if I badger them too much about doing stuff with Lily. I am just going to have to give up trying to make her get a life outside this place and concede that this place is her life. At least for the time being. Soon enough, there will be nothing here for her and she will be forced to move on. If I have done my job well, she will. It just would have made me feel more at peace to see her settle into a new way of life before I go, so I would know what’s going to happen to her. Although, my sister never had that luxury, and things turned out fine after all. I think Jen would be very happy to see us now, me and Lily. And if it makes Lily happy to be with me, I’m not going to deprive her of a single minute of it. There aren’t that many minutes left. Anyway, there is still the remote possibility that Terry’s freelance sleuthing might prove fruitful in filling the void left in Lily’s life by my passing. If nothing else, Terry’s promise puts an end to a lifetime of laboring over what to do with mine. And for that, I am grateful.
On Sunday evening, Terry calls. She wants to know if Lily has left yet, and I tell her she just did.
“Auntie Bev, I did a little research,” Terry says.
“And you found Lily’s father.”
“Did Lily tell you I said I’d look for him?” Her voice is a bit strained now.
“Yes,” I say. This conversation was beginning to remind me of all those we had when she was a teenager. She always got caught. At least I hope so. “She said you promised.”
“Well, I didn’t exactly promise,” Terry says. “Lily started asking questions about that picture of her and the puppy.”
“Well, now she really wants to see her father,” I say. “I wish you hadn’t brought it all up. We don’t even know the man’s name.”
“What? How do you know that?”
“I got in touch with Mom’s best friend – the lady who used to work with her. She told me his name.”
“I remember her,” I say. I try to remember why I had lost contact with her. I so enjoyed her writing and the stories she would tell me about Jen.
“Terry, as curious as we may be, I don’t think we should go against your mother’s wishes. She asked me never to contact him.”
“She did? When? That doesn’t sound like Mom. She pretty much lived her life like an open book.”
“Well, this chapter was closed,” I say.
“Well, it’s open now,” Terry says. “I have his phone number.”
“He’s still alive?”
“He’s only 62.”
“You must have the wrong person, Honey,” I say. “He’s got to be older than that. Do the math.”
“It’s the right person, Auntie.”
“How can you be so sure?” I ask. “There’s got to be oodles of Pablo Perezes.”
“I called him.”
“What? Why didn’t you tell me you were going to do this, Terry?”
“What’s the big deal?” she says. “He was glad to hear about Lily. That she was doing well and everything.”
“The big deal is it’s strictly against your mother’s wishes,” I say.
“Mom told you that if Lily ever wants to track down her father, she should be forbidden?”
“No, but–.” I almost slipped and told her I had once tried to find another home for Lily. “She never would elaborate, Terry. But she told me not to contact him back when she was sick. She must have had a good reason. I made a promise.”
“She couldn’t have meant never contact him,” Terry says. “Anyway, I didn’t promise. You did.”
“Well, I hope you didn’t invite him to Thanksgiving Dinner,” I say. “You know nothing about this man.”
“He seems like a very nice man, Auntie,” Terry says. “Real salt of the earth. Gentle and soft-spoken.”
“You got all of this from a telephone conversation?” I say. “Your mother knew him quite a bit better than that, and she didn’t want anything to do with him, for some reason.”
She is silent for several seconds and finally says, “Well, people change. They grow up. He’s an elderly school custodian. How much of a menace to society could he be?”
“He could be a pedophile,” I say. “And he’s not that elderly.”
Speaking of which, I still needed to do the math. Jen would be 76 now if she were alive. That makes him 14 years younger than her. That means she was 39 and he was 25. Oh my.
Terry told me she had to hang up and go settle a dispute between her children and she would call me soon.
“Wait, hold on,” I tell her. “At least tell me what you plan to do next? Did you tell him you would put him in touch with Lily or anything?”
“He said he’d like to talk with her on the phone.”
“I don’t know. I gave him her phone number at the group home.” I can hear in the background the children have turned up the volume on their disagreement. “I really have to go, Auntie, before someone kills someone here. I’ll keep you posted if I hear anything, and you do the same for me.”
“OK,” I say. “Kiss the kids for me.”
“Kisses back to you Auntie,” Terry says.
“Oh, Terry,” I say, “I won’t mention anything to Lily. In case he doesn’t call.”
I hang up and sit silent for a while, doing nothing. I keep trying to imagine how my sister got involved with a man that much younger than she was. And why did she sever contact with him? Or him with her? They did, after all, have a child together. You’d think that would warrant at least an occasional post card. Something comes bubbling up in my esophagus. It is either the Salisbury steak or the anxiety of opening the door to whatever it was that made my sister slam it shut. I ring for the nurse to bring me a Rolaids.
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Copyright 2017 Sherry Boas