Angel Falling Softly

Chapter 34

It's always darkest before the dawn

Rachel sat in the hospital room watching her daughter. She’d brought along another Anastasia book, Anastasia’s Chosen Career. In a moment of honest introspection, she would admit to liking the books because she pictured Anastasia and Sam, Anastasia’s precocious little brother, as she wished to picture Laura and Jennifer: alive and well in a better and safer world.

Veralee strode into the cubical on her morning rounds. Seeing Rachel with the book, she said, “Oh, don’t stop on my account. I’m sure Jenny’s looking forward to it. Aren’t you, Jenny?” She set to checking the lines and monitors and recording the data for the day’s charts.

Sufficiently goaded, Rachel opened the book and began reading. She completed three chapters before having to leave in order to get home before Laura did.

“A moment, Sister Forsythe,” Veralee called out, catching up with her in the lobby.

“What is it?” Rachel said. Almost automatically she checked for her purse, thinking she had left something behind.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Veralee said. Yet she lowered her voice and drew Rachel aside with an air of professional discretion. “Suanne on the night shift says that a woman’s been coming up to the unit the last couple of nights and sitting with Jennifer.”

“Sitting with her?”

“I never saw her before this week. She brings work with her, like from the office. She always asks how Jennifer is doing. She’ll sit in the room for several hours, sometimes till very late. I figured she must have the doctor’s permission to stay after visiting hours. I guess no one’s thought to question her. But I thought I should ask, just the same.”

“Do you mean an attractive young woman about my height, well dressed, platinum blonde, very light skin—”

“Why, yes, that’s how Su described her. Do you know her?”

“She’s—a friend of the family.”

“It seems she cares about Jenny very much.”

“Yes,” Rachel said, and she was surprised to hear herself say it. “Yes, she does.”

And yet she also felt a flurry of fear in her heart.

Wednesday afternoon Rachel received the call she had been waiting for. The call came from the High-Risk Leukemia Clinic at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, asking if she and her husband could meet with Dr. Ingebretsen at the hospital the next day. There was nothing unusual about the request. They regularly met with the good doctor for progress reports on Jennifer’s condition.

Thursday at ten, the doctor found them at Jennifer’s bedside and led them back to his office. He seated himself behind his desk, a judge shielded behind the great bar of medical justice. He examined Jennifer’s charts, raising his head to peer through the bottom lenses of his bifocals. Then he put the charts down, adjusted his glasses, and cleared his throat.

“Jennifer rallied there for a few days.”

Rachel closed her eyes and opened them. The past tense in the statement flashed in her brain like a neon warning sign. She clenched her hand in David’s grasp.

“Her FDP levels are rising again. Her absolute neutrophil count is below five hundred. The latest bone marrow smear was not promising.” He stopped and cleared his throat. “At this point, I’m not convinced—”

“Another transplant,” Rachel offered, her voice trembling.

But the horrible man insisted on completing the sentence he’d started. “At this point, I’m not convinced that another transplant would help.”

Other than his solemn, practiced gravity, no hint of emotion shadowed his voice. He delivered Jennifer’s death sentence like a black-robed judge.

They’d driven to the hospital separately. David had to get back to work. What he really had to do was get away from the hospital, Rachel sensed. He had to get away from her.

“I was sure she was doing better,” Rachel said.

He agreed without words, dutifully. She knew it was out of duty. He kept a stiff upper lip as well as any of his stolid British forebears. Whenever Laura got into a rage he’d remind her, “Comes from your side of the family. Those rambunctious Celts.”

The wisdom in her husband’s silence said that there were better ways for a child to leave mortality than in this half-comatose state, her tiny body ravaged by cancer. And then the chemo. And then the radiation, the bone marrow transplant, and doses of methotrexate and steroids that would have brought a full-grown man to his knees. Was it any wonder that her daughter chose to remain in this twilight of sleep?

But failure was not an option. “We should get a second opinion,” Rachel said.

“A second opinion?” David repeated in an incredulous tone that she hadn’t heard before but had been a long time coming. “We’re into double digits when it comes to second opinions!”

They had been of one mind through the worst of it. They had borne the burden together. In his own way David had mourned when she mourned, comforted her when she stood in need of comfort. He had never mentioned the cost financially or emotionally, had never complained or protested.

He was getting to the end of that rope.

“We can’t give up!”

“There is a difference between giving up and facing reality.”

Rachel followed him down to the parking garage. David’s voice echoed with uncharacteristic force in the cool, gray catacombs.

“If there’s something more we can do—”

“Rachel, that’s not the point. There will always be something more we can do. Jenny’s not a plant. We’re not winning points for simply keeping her alive another day.”

Rachel glared at him. “I’m the one who’s been with her every day.” Meaning that his job and bishopric duties were more important than his own flesh and blood. “She’s still our daughter. She’s still Jennifer. She still here. It’s our job to sacrifice for her, not the other way around.”

That’s not what he meant, of course. When he got to the end of his rope, she’d be there to hang him with it.

“But when is enough enough?” David asked plaintively.

It was the one question Rachel could not answer. Instead she said, “Milada’s sister.”

“Who?”

“Milada’s sister is a doctor at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in New York.” Miraculously this tidbit of information came back to her now. “We could ask her. Maybe she knows about new, experimental treatments.”

“Rachel—” David threw up his arms in frustration and laced his fingers across the top of his head. He had run out of words, she sensed, to express the futility of these suggestions without deliberately wounding her. Finally he turned and asked, “Does she even work in oncology?”

Rachel didn’t know.

That was how the argument ended, how their arguments usually ended: with sufficient doubt raised in her mind and sufficient wordless frustration clouding his. A perfunctory kiss and he drove off, probably with a great sense of relief.

Rachel returned to Jennifer’s hospital room. She was so accustomed to the aberrant world in which their daughter existed that she no longer felt comfortable in reality.

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