Two mothers. Two children. One tragedy. One miracle. Snelling, whose novels have sold more than two million copies, is sure to grab readers from the start of this holiday melodrama. Nora Peterson wants to create the perfect Christmas for what may be the last year her twins are home before leaving for college. Her husband's long business trip threatens her plans, but her world is about to turn upside down from far worse. As she faces tragedy, emergency room nurse Jenna Montgomery faces a miracle: her dying daughter, Heather, is getting a new heart. Snelling moves from one mother's viewpoint to the other's with ease, keeping readers riveted to Nora's emotional and spiritual healing and Jenna's understanding of her daughter's new life, as well as her own. Subplots-Nora's relationship with her daughter, Christi, and Jenna's surprise romance-add layers to this spiritually challenging and emotionally taut story. Fans of Christian women's fiction will enjoy this winning novel. (Oct. 22)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
One Perfect Dayby Lauraine Snelling
This is the story of two mothers, strangers to one another.
The first has two children--twins, a boy and girl, who are seniors in high school. She wants their last Christmas as a family living in the same home to be perfect, but her husband is delayed returning from a business trip abroad. And then there's an accident--a fatal one involving a drunk driver.
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This is the story of two mothers, strangers to one another.
The first has two children--twins, a boy and girl, who are seniors in high school. She wants their last Christmas as a family living in the same home to be perfect, but her husband is delayed returning from a business trip abroad. And then there's an accident--a fatal one involving a drunk driver.
Meanwhile, the other mother has a daughter who needs a new heart, and so the loss of one woman becomes the miracle the other has desperately prayed for. While one mother grieves, and pulls away from her family, the other finds that even miracles aren't always easy to receive.
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One Perfect DayA Novel
By Snelling, Lauraine
FaithWordsCopyright © 2011 Snelling, Lauraine
All right reserved.
Gordon, where are you?
Betsy, a middle-aged yellow Lab, looked up as if she had heard Nora speaking. The two—owner and pet—had been best friends for so long that the twins frequently teased their mother about mental telepathy—with a dog. Betsy thumped her tail and gazed up from her self-assigned spot at Nora’s feet.
Leaving the bay-window seat, where she’d been staring out at the moon lighting fire to the frost-encrusted winter lawn, which sloped down to the lakeshore, Nora crossed the kitchen to set the teakettle to boiling. Tea always helped in times of distress. She brought out the rose-sprinkled china teapot and filled it with hot water. Tonight was not a mug night but a “stoke up the reserves” night. If there had been snow on the ground, this was the kind of night, with the moon so bright every blade of grass glinted, when she would have hit the ski trails. An hour of cross-country skiing and she’d have been relaxed enough to fall asleep whether Gordon called or not.
So, instead, she drank tea. As if copious cups would make her sleep deeply rather than toss and turn. Perhaps she would work on the business plan if she got enough caffeine into her system.
Betsy’s ears perked up and she went and stood in front of the door to the garage.
Nora’s heart leaped. Gordon must be home after all. But why hadn’t he called to say he was at the airport? His business trip to Stuttgart, Germany, had already been prolonged and here they were trying to get ready—with just four days until Christmas. The last one for which she could guarantee the twins would still be home. Her last chance for perfection. When he’d told her a week ago he had to fly to Stuttgart again, the word “again” had echoed in her head.
Betsy’s tail increased the wag speed and she backed up as the door opened.
“Mom, I’m home.” Charlie, the older twin by two minutes, and named after his father, Charles Gordon Peterson, came through the door in his usual rush. “Oh, there you are.” Grinning up at his mother, he paused to pet the waiting dog. “Good girl, Bets, did you take good care of Mom?” Betsy wagged her tail and caught the tip of his nose with her black-spotted tongue. “Smells good in here.” He glanced around the kitchen, zeroing in on the plate of powdered-sugar–dusted brownies. “Heard from Dad?”
“No.” Nora cupped her elbows with her hands and leaned against the counter. At five-seven, she found that the raised counter fit right into the small of her back. When they’d built the house, she and Gordon had chosen cabinets two inches higher than normal, since they were both tall. Made for easier work surfaces. “Go ahead, quit drooling and eat. There’s a plate in the fridge for you to pop in the microwave.”
“Where’s Christi?” Charlie asked around a mouthful of walnut-laced brownie.
“Upstairs. I think she’s finishing a Christmas present.”
“Are we going to decorate the tree tonight?”
“We were waiting on you.” And your father, but somehow he always manages to not be here at tree-decorating time. While Gordon was not a “bah, humbug” kind of guy, his idea of a perfect Christmas was skiing in Colorado. They’d done his last year, with his promise to help make hers perfect this year. Right. Big help from across the Atlantic. While Nora knew he’d not deliberately chosen to be gone this week before Christmas, it still rankled, irritating under her skin like a fine cactus spine, hard to see and harder to dig out.
Charlie retrieved his plate from the fridge and slid it into the microwave, all the while filling his mother in on the antics of the children standing in line to visit Santa. Charlie excelled as one of Santa’s elves, a big elf at six feet, with dark curly hair and hazel eyes, which sparkled with delight. Charlie loved little kids; so when this perfect job came up, he took it and entertained them all in his green-and-red elf suit. He could turn the saddest tears into laughter. Santa told him not to grow up, he’d need elves forever.
“One little girl had the bluest round eyes you ever saw.” Charlie took his warmed plate out and pulled a stool up to the counter so he could eat. “She had this one great big tear trickling down her cheek, but I hid behind my hands”—he demonstrated peekaboo with his fingers—“and she sniffed, ducked into Santa, caught herself and peeked back at me. When he did his ‘ho ho ho,’ she looked up at him with the cutest grin.” He deepened his voice. “ ‘And what do you want for Christmas, little girl?’ ”
Charlie shifted into shy little girl: “ ‘I—I want a kitty. My mommy’s kitty died and she needs a new one.’ ” He paused. “ ‘And make sure it has a good motor. My mommy likes to hold one that purrs.’ ” Charlie came back to himself. “Can you believe that, Mom? That’s all she wanted. She reached up and kissed his cheek, slid off his lap and waved good-bye.”
“What a little sweetheart.”
“I checked with Annie, who was taking the pictures, and got their address. You think we could find a kitten that has a good motor at the Humane Society?”
“Ask Christi, she’d know.” Christi volunteered one afternoon a week at the Riverbend Humane Society and would bring home every condemned animal if they let her. She’d fostered more dogs and cats in the last year than most people did in a lifetime. She’d found homes for them too, except for Bushy, an older white fluffy cat, with one black ear and one black paw. His green eyes captivated her, or at least that was the excuse for his taking up permanent residence.
“I will. Be nice if there was a half-grown one with a loud motor.”
“Loud motor for what?” Christi, Bushy draped across her arm, wandered into the kitchen, a smear of Sap Green oil paint on her right cheek, matching the blob on the back of her right forefinger. Tall at five-nine, with an oval face and haunting grayish blue eyes, she looked every bit the traditional blond Norwegian. As much as Charlie entertained the world, she observed and translated what she saw onto canvases that burst with color and yet drew the eye into the shadows, where peace and serenity lurked. Christi would rather paint than eat or even breathe at times.
“A little girl asked Santa for a kitty for her mother”—he shifted into mimic—“ ‘ ’Cause Mommy’s kitty died and she is sad.’ ”
“That’s all she wanted?”
“Gee, that’s what I thought too.” Nora motioned toward the teapot and Christi nodded. While her mother poured the tea, Christi absently rubbed the paint spot on her cheek.
“There are three cats for adoption right now. I like the gold one, she loves to be held. The other two would rather roughhouse.”
“You think it would still be there until after school?”
“I’ll call Shawna and tell her to hold it for you. Are you sure you want to do this? What happens if she doesn’t really want it?”
“Can anyone turn down one of Santa’s elves?”
“You’d go in costume?”
“I could paint you a card.”
“Sure, have one started. All I need to do is change the color of the cat. Luckily, I made it white, like Bushy here.” She rubbed her cheek on the cat’s fluffy head. “How long until we decorate the tree?”
“Give me five minutes.”
“Okay, you two start on the lights and I’ll finish the card. You want me to sign it for you?” Christi had taken classes in calligraphy and had taught her mother how to sign all the Christmas cards in perfect script.
“You know, you’re all right for a girl.” Charlie bounded up the stairs to his room, where all his herpetological friends lived. Arnold, a three-foot rosy boa that should have been named Houdini, was his favorite.
Nora handed Christi her mug of tea. “Take a brownie with you.”
“Thanks, Mom. You heard from Dad yet?”
“No.” Nora knew her answer was a bit clipped.
“Something must be wrong.” Christi’s eyes darkened in concern. “Did you call him?”
“I tried, cell went right to voice mail.”
“So, he was on it?”
“Or he let the battery run out.” As efficient as Gordon was, you’d think he could remember to plug his phone into the charger. The two women of the family shared an eye rolling.
“Unless he’s broken down someplace.”
“You always tell me not to worry.”
“Well, advising and doing are two different things.” Nora set her cup and saucer in the dishwasher. “Want to help me unroll the lights?”
“I was going up to finish that card.”
Nora checked her watch. “Ten minutes?”
“Done.” Christi scooped Bushy up off the counter, where he’d flopped, and headed up the stairs, not leaping like her brother, but lithe and regal, the residuals of her years of ballet and modern dance.
Nora and Betsy headed for the living room, but when the phone rang, she did an about-face and a near dive for the wall phone in the desk alcove. “Hello.”
“Nora, I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner.”
“There, you did it again.” She tried to sound harsh, but relief turned her to quivering Jell-O.
“Apologize. Now I can’t be mad at you.” His chuckle reminded her of how much she missed him when he was gone. “Where are you?”
“Still in Stuttgart. Art and I got to talking and I didn’t realize the time passing. I had to get some sleep.”
“You’re up awfully early.”
“I know. Trying to finish up. Is the tree up yet?”
“What, are you trying to outwait me?”
“What ever gave you that idea?” He coughed to clear his throat.
“Just a tickle. Look, I should be on my way home this afternoon. I’ve got to wrap this thing up, but I told them the deadline is noon and I’m heading for the airport at three, come he-heaven or high water.”
“Well, don’t worry about the tree.” She slipped into suffering servant to make him laugh again. “The kids and I’ll get that done tonight.” It worked. His chuckle always made her smile back, even when he couldn’t see her.
“They have school tomorrow, right?”
“Right. Last day, so there’ll be parties. I have goodie trays all ready to take.”
“You made Julekaka for the teachers again?”
Nora chuckled. “Gotta keep my place as favorite mother of high-school students.”
“Is that Dad?” Charlie called from the stairs. “Tell him to hurry home. I have to…” The rest of his words were lost in his rush.
“Charlie says to hurry home.”
“I heard him. Give them both hugs from me.”
“Do you need a ride from the airport?” She glanced at the clock. Nine P.M. here meant four A.M. in Germany. Good thing Gordon was a morning person.
“No, I’ll take a cab. I love you.”
“You better.” She hung up on both their chuckles. How come just hearing his voice upped the wattage on the lights? And after twenty-two years of marriage. As people so often told them, they were indeed the lucky ones. “Please, Lord, take good care of him,” she whispered as she blew him a silent kiss. She joined Charlie in the living room, where a blue spruce graced the bay window overlooking the front yard, where she and Gordon had festooned tiny white lights on the naked branches of the maple, which burst into fiery color in the fall, and the privet hedge, which bordered the drive. Lights in icicle mode graced the front eaves, while two tall white candles guarded the front steps. She’d filled pots with holly up the flagstone stairs and hung a swag of pine boughs, red balls and a huge gold mesh bow on the door.
“Here.” Charlie handed her the reel of tiny white lights and pulled on the end to plug it in.
“I already checked them all this afternoon. Just start at the top of the tree.”
They had a third of the lights on the eight-foot tree when Christi joined them, setting the finished card on the mantel to dry. “I didn’t put it in the envelope yet, so don’t forget this in the morning, or are you coming home before going over there? Shawna said she’ll put your name on the golden cat. She’s already been fixed, so she is ready for her new home.” Christi picked up another reel of light strings. “You need to put them closer together.”
“Yeah, right, Miss Queen Bee has spoken,” Charlie mumbled from behind the tree.
“You don’t have to get huffy.”
“You don’t have to be bossy.”
“All right, let’s just get the lights on.” All they had to do was get through this drudgery part and then all would be well. Gordon always tried to skimp on the lights too. Like father, like son. Silence reigned as they wound the lights around the tree branches, punctuated only by a “hand me another reel, please” and “ouch” when a spruce needle dug into the tender spot under the nail. Nora sucked on her finger for a moment to ease the stinging. Inhaling the intoxicating spruce scent brought back memories of the last years and made her grateful again for all the joys they’d had. One more thing to miss tonight, the rehash she and Gordon always did post–tree trimming, when the children had gone to bed, like Monday-morning quarterbacking, only with more smiles and laughter. Much of the laughter came because of Charlie’s clowning around.
“What if she doesn’t like the cat?” Charlie asked.
“Then we’ll take it back,” Christi said matter-of-factly.
“By ‘back,’ I’m sure you mean to the Humane Society. Bushy would not like another cat around here.” Nora’s hands stilled. This she needed to clarify.
“Of course, Mom.”
Nora looked up in time to catch a head shake from her daughter and one of the “I’m trying to be patient” looks Christi was so good at. Why was it so quiet? “Oh, I forgot to put the music on. Messiah all right?”
When both twins shrugged, she knew they’d rather have something else, but were giving her the choice. She crossed to the sound system, hit the number three button and waited a moment for Mariah Carey’s voice to flow out. She’d play the Messiah after they went to bed. They’d all attended the “Sing-Along Messiah” concert the second weekend in December. At least Gordon had been home for that tradition.
A bit later they all three stepped back with matching sighs.
“All right, throw the switch.” She looked at Charlie, who had taken over that job years earlier. This certainly was a night for memories. When the tree sprang to life, they swapped grins and nods. The ornaments were the easy part.
By unspoken agreement, they decided to hang the ornaments, which they’d bought one per year on their annual family shopping trip and dinner-out tradition, higher in the tree to keep away from batting cat’s paws and a dog’s wagging tail. While the twins snorted at her sentimentality, she hung the ornaments they’d made through the years, some like the Santa face with a cotton ball beard, beginning to look more than a bit scruffy, but dear nevertheless. The ornaments that their Tante Karen had given them through the years on their Christmas presents brought up memories and set the two to recalling each year and what their interest had been then.
Nora knew that her sister watched both the twins and the shops carefully through the year to find just the perfect ornament. When the twins had trees of their own, they would already have seventeen ornaments each to take with them. The thought made Nora pause. The home tree would look mighty bare. She hung the crocheted and stiffened snowflakes she had made one year and had given for gifts. Then three little folded-paper-and-waxed stars she’d made in Girl Scouts took their own places.
When they’d hung the final ornament, they stared at the box with the glorious angel that always smiled benignly from the top of the tree.
“Let’s leave that for Dad.” Christi turned toward her mother.
“I agree.” Setting the angel just right with a light inside her to make her shimmer was always Gordon’s job—for years because he was the only one tall enough and now because they wanted him to have a part, no matter how many miles separated them.
Charlie shrugged. “I am tall enough, you know.”
“I know.” Nora gathered her two chicks to her sides and they admired the tree together. “Thank you. I know it is late, with school tomorrow, but I really appreciate your helping the tradition continue.” She tried not to sniff, but her body went on automatic pilot.
Charlie’s arm around her back squeezed and Christi leaned her head against her mother’s. Together they turned and surveyed all the decorations; the mantel was the only thing that Nora changed year after year, and all was done but hanging the Christmas stockings. The hooks waited. Charlie picked up the flat box that held the cross-stitched or quilted stockings and they each hung up their own. Nora hung hers and Gordon’s, while the kids hung the ones for Bushy and Betsy.
“Now Santa can come.” Christi smoothed the satin surfaces of her crazy-quilt stocking, with every satin or velvet piece decorated with intricate embroidery stitches, cross-stitch, daisy chain and feather. “When I get married, will you make my husband a sock to match?”
“I will.” Just please don’t be in too big a hurry. Not that Christi was dating anyone. She often said she left all the flirting up to her brother, since all the girls were after him all the time.
But Nora often wondered if Christi was a bit jealous, not that she would ask. Her daughter talked more with her father than she did with her mother. Unless, of course, it was a real female thing.
“Anyone for cocoa? The real kind? I can make it while you get ready for bed. I’ll bring the tray up.”
“And brownies?” Charlie asked.
“Fattigman?” Christi loved the traditional Norwegian goodies Nora made only at Christmastime.
“Of course, and since you’ll be getting home early tomorrow, you can help me with the sandbakles.”
Charlie groaned. Pressing the buttery dough into the small fluted tins was not his idea of fun.
“ ‘He who eats must press.’ ” Christi sang out the line her mother had often repeated since the time they were little.
Nora watched her two swap shoulder punches as they climbed the stairs. No matter how much they teased each other or argued, the bond between them ran deeper than most siblings. Gordon called it spooky; she figured it was a gift from God.
Time to make cocoa, as her family had called it. In her mind, hot chocolate came in a packet or tin. Good thing she’d picked up the miniature marshmallows. Betsy padding beside her, she returned to the kitchen to fix the tray. If only Gordon were here. Carrying the tray up the stairs was his job.
He didn’t call.
Nora glared at the clock. How could six A.M. come so quickly? Taking into consideration the seven-hour time difference, Gordon should have called and left a message. No beeping on the phone equaled no message. He said he’d call. She scrubbed sleep from her eyes and stumbled into the bathroom. She stared into the mirror. Bags under the eyes—not a good sign. Her roots needed Honorio’s careful attention. The highlights he so skillfully wove made her hair look nearly the dark blond color it had been when she was Christi’s age. And she needed a haircut. Knowing his schedule, she knew the hair treatment would have to wait until after Christmas. This morning her grayish blue eyes, which so matched her daughter’s, looked bleary, underwritten with lines of resentment.
The hot shower helped to revive her somewhat, and the coffee she knew was ready downstairs, thanks to modern technology, would take her the rest of the way. Her to-do list was already on the second page. That thought flared more resentment. Nearly half the list was Gordon’s Christmas shopping, which he would arrive too late to accomplish. Again.
“You better get rolling,” she announced with a tap at each twin’s bedroom door, and continued on down the stairs, Betsy right in front of her. She let the yellow Lab out, an act of mercy, before pouring her coffee. Then she put down dog food and took her mug, Bible and journal to the drop-leaf table in the bay window. Instead of sitting on the built-in padded bench seat, she took her favorite captain’s chair, only to jump up at the yip at the door to let Betsy back in. Barking this early would not be pleasing to the new neighbors, both of whom worked swing shift.
Nora had found her current page in the journal and started to write when a movement near the refrigerator caught her eye. Betsy looked up at the same instant and emitted a strangled yelp. Sure enough, Arnold was out again and slithering for his favorite warm spot on the top of the refrigerator. Not that there wasn’t a heater on his terrarium, but the rosy boa loved to roam.
Nora had gotten over her squeamishness for all things creepy and crawly years ago. Even as a toddler, Charlie had carried in his pockets worms and crickets and whatever else moved slow enough for him to catch. Good thing they lived in Minnesota, where dangerous reptiles, spiders, and insects didn’t.
She did, however, draw the line at returning Arnold to his lair. At least when Charlie was home. Striding to the bottom of the stairs, she shouted upward, “Charlie, Arnold is on the loose. You are going to have to put a lock on that creature’s house.” She headed back to the kitchen at her son’s “Coming!” and sat down to her journal again. If she’d gotten up at her normal five thirty, she’d have had the peace she needed. Peace to replace the irritation at Gordon for not calling, for not carrying his organization skills over into his family life and for simply not being home. She re-read her verse for the day: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” If that didn’t fit her pre-Christmas marathon, nothing would.
She’d heard a story once about a woman who had laid her burden at the foot of the Cross, walked away, then, feeling something missing, returned and picked it up. Nora knew that might well be her story. Laying down the burden of being angry with Gordon was easy, but the snatching back? If Jesus was indeed the Prince of Peace, He could leave some on her doorstep. Sarcasm in her devotions, that’s all she needed. She dropped her head into her hands. “Father, forgive me, but is it wrong to want this to be a perfect Christmas, this last Christmas the kids are sure to be home?” Hoping for a holy whisper, instead the pounding of male feet down the stairs heralded that her son was in a hurry.
Nora shook her head. “You know most mothers would freak out at having a snake slither up on their refrigerator.”
“I know. You’re the best.” Charlie carefully coiled the snake in one arm and snagged a breakfast bar off the counter with the other. On his way back upstairs, she heard, “If you want a ride, be ready in ten,” to what Nora knew was the closed bathroom door. His twin, Christi, was not a morning person, unlike her brother, whose eyes snapped open in concert with his mouth and his brain. Christi needed to process that morning had indeed arrived and she was expected to be part of the day prior to noon.
Betsy laid her head on Nora’s knee and gazed up at her with adoring eyes. “Yes, I know you want to go for a walk. We’ll go as soon as they are out the door, okay?” The dog brushed the tile floor with her tail and sighed in delight when Nora rubbed her ears.
A new set of feet stomped, one stair at a time, as though their owner were being dragged. Christi set her backpack on the counter with a sigh and retrieved a banana from the bowl of fruit.
“Good morning to you too,” Nora said.
Christi nodded without looking at her, slowly reaching for the Honey Nut Cheerios, her favorite cereal. She fixed her bowl, slicing the banana on top with artistic perfection. After she’d perched on the high stool at the counter to eat, words at last emerged. “Don’t forget I need a ride to church to work on the sets.” She was painting the moveable scenery to be used in the Christmas Eve pageant. “Thought for sure I’d get finished last night.”
“Did anyone come and help you?”
That—most likely—had not truly bothered Christi, who preferred her own company when creating. Next year’s Christmas Eve pageant would have to get along without her daughter. What would Nora and Gordon do, once they were on their own for Christmas? She couldn’t begin to imagine the empty nest so eagerly anticipated by some of her friends. Not yet; Christmas loomed too large, with too many things left unfinished. She was already behind, thanks to Gordon. She made another addition to her list. This afternoon she would move all the packages out of hiding to under the tree.
“How’s your dad’s present coming?”
“Finished it last night.”
“After we decorated the tree? That was really late.”
“Last time I had. It has to dry enough so I can wrap it.”
“I know he’ll love it.”
“You haven’t peeked, have you?” Christi looked up from fishing the last cereal out of her bowl, her voice wearing an accusing cloak.
“No, I didn’t peek. You didn’t invite me to.” And I’d never invade that privacy you deem so important. She often wondered where her daughter got that obsessive need to guard the things she created. Really, to guard herself. Was it just the obsessive tendency toward perfection, to which she surely was heir? According to the matrimonial surveys, Nora knew that Gordon should be a slob, the opposite of her neatness, but, instead, he was even more neat than she. Had she wanted, she could have eaten off the floor of his garage, to beg an old cliché. Not that she’d ever wanted to, of course.
“You ready?” Charlie paused at the refrigerator, took out the half-gallon milk jug and glugged several swallows. Unlike his sister, he would tell a perfect stranger his entire life story. An open book and friend to all was her Charlie. The twins couldn’t be more different… nor more devoted to each other. They knew when the other was coming down with some bug; Christi professing her finger hurt when Charlie got as much as a sliver. Sympathetic… something or other, the pediatrician had called it.
Nora waited for Christi’s response, and when it came, she cracked a smile.
“Eeeuw, Mom, make him stop that! Won’t you ever grow up?”
“In a hurry.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, put the cap back on and set the milk back on the top shelf.
Nora had learned to keep her mouth shut. As to the germ problem that Christi moaned about? None of them had died yet.
He headed for the door to the garage, backpack slung over one shoulder and stocking hat stuffed in his down parka pocket.
“Aren’t you going to eat more than…?”
He brushed his mother’s cheek with a kiss. “No time. Come on, snail, or you’ll have to ride the bus.”
“I’m coming. Get the car out, I’ll meet you in front.” Christi set her cereal bowl in the sink.
“You want a mug of coffee with you?” Nora asked.
“No.” She paused a moment as if thinking. “No thanks,” she added politely, but in the vague tone that indicated she’d already tuned out her mother.
“Have a good day.” Nora raised her voice so Charlie would hear her too. As the door slammed shut, Christi headed for the coat closet, her own door slam following Charlie’s.
Nora felt silence descend. On to her list and the pursuit of the perfect Christmas. Then a quick look back at the kitchen revealed Christi’s backpack on the counter. Another difference between the two. Charlie’s life rode in his backpack; Christi rarely seemed to know where hers was. This morning was case in point. Nora leaped to her feet and grabbed the pack, yelling “Wait” as she tore out the front door. “Here!” She hollered louder to be heard over the rumble of Charlie’s Jeep and waved her arm to catch their attention. Charlie hit the brakes and Christi leaped from the car and ran back to her mother.
“Thanks. That was dumb.” She took her backpack and half slipped on the icy walk before hustling back to the car.
“I love you!” Nora blew them kisses, ignoring what she knew to be their eye rolling and “Oh, Mother” looks. Too bad. She had rights and a mother’s duty to remind them of the important things. And that included this year’s perfect Christmas. Once the absent and uncommunicative—her stomach tightened as she remembered—Gordon returned, she’d have the chance to remind them all to make this year the very best. She and Betsy turned back into the house, Nora shivering and the dog dancing her anticipation of the coming walk.
Twenty minutes later, Betsy was in her glory and Nora’s nose was nearly frozen. Her mind, however, bubbled like boiling water as she reviewed her to-do list, uncharitable thoughts of Gordon periodically intruding.
Her normal speed-walking wasn’t a good idea this morning, with all the ice patches on the road and sidewalks. All she needed was to slip on the ice and break something. Now, wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to ruin Christmas? Betsy trotted along beside her, not bothering to stop and sniff all her usual haunts, so they covered two miles in good time. When speed-walking, she usually did four to five.
The pregnant gray clouds thickened on their way home. The weatherman’s prediction for snow was looking more possible all the while. The wind had picked up too. By the time she and Betsy made the front door, the snow had begun in earnest. She’d hoped for a white Christmas.
Back in the house, she hung her down parka in the hall closet and tossed her gloves and hat into the basket attached to the inside of the door. Inhaling pine, cinnamon and vanilla, she paused long enough in the living room to give the tree a judicial going-over. No need to change anything anymore. During the early years, she had often moved ornaments around to cover any bare spots the children had left. No tinsel to redistribute. They’d given up using tinsel years earlier when their first cat had ingested several strands and had to have surgery to clean her out. Ah, the memories floating around the tree and throughout the house. What would it be like when the kids had their own lives? Grandchildren, she decided. But perhaps she was getting ahead of herself.
In the kitchen, she poured herself a cup of coffee, dug out a chew bone for Betsy and drew in a deep breath. She’d better speed up. First, finish the last of the Christmas baking. She set the supplies for frosting and wrapped the round loaves of Julekaka, the Norwegian form of Christmas bread, with cardamom, currants and bits of candied fruit inside. She dropped almond flavoring into the powdered sugar, butter and cream frosting, adding one more layer to the scented house. She frosted each loaf, made a circle of candied cherry halves in red and green, set the loaf on a plastic Christmas plate, wrapped the entire thing in clear sheets of plastic and added a bow and name tag.
After checking her watch, she crossed “Julekaka” off her list. She’d already decorated the boxes used for the three kinds of brownies and other cookies she was taking for the kids’ parties. As mother-in-charge, she’d made sure there would be plenty of treats, including homemade popcorn balls, Christi’s favorite. She knew she had a reputation to uphold. All the teachers commented on the nice things she did for them throughout the year. She figured she couldn’t thank them enough for the fine jobs they were doing with her children.
In the next three hours, she crossed “sandbakles,” a Norwegian cookie, or tart shell, off the list and packed it up. Next item: Charlie had requested hamburgers for supper, not the fast-food kind, her kind. She brought out the ground beef, added a packet of onion soup mix, a few glugs of barbeque sauce and Worcestershire sauce, then began forming patties, big ones, the kind her men liked. Betsy yipped at the back door and she crossed the room to let her out. The snow was already sticking to the ground, the wind tossing the powder on the covered patio furniture. She frowned. Big, fat flakes, the kind that covered the ground quickly and shut out the light early.
Clutching her list, Nora paused at the window and watched the bits of tissue float down, dancing and twirling in the puffs of wind. As always, her heart thrilled at the first snowfall of the season; they’d usually had several by now. Each year was different, but switching to cross-country skiing from speed-walking always gave her a leap of excitement. When the lake froze over, they skated too, and Gordon set his fish house out. While there had been ice around the shore, the middle was all open water. She let Betsy back in, gave her a treat and turned on the stereo for Christmas music to flood the house. There would be time for all those activities in the days to come, but now was the time to work. She finished the patties, wrapped them one more time and placed them in the fridge.
She chewed the inside of her cheek. To call Gordon’s office or not to call to find out if he’d contacted them? A quick glance at the swollen to-do list solved the question.
“He did? On time. Okay, many thanks.” Nora hung up the phone and acknowledged she was officially seething. Gordon had called the office to tell them his flight was on time and when he would be landing. His office.
At least she had information, she consoled herself. But it didn’t make her feel any better. On to delivery, and… she gulped. Picking up Christi at three. She’d nearly forgotten. That meant she couldn’t stop on the way home and do Gordon’s shopping. She rather hoped he was sitting next to someone obnoxious on the plane. Someone who wanted to tell him all about widgets.
Ashamed, she decided she needed a boost in her Christmas spirit; so she hurried into a special red Christmas sweater, with snowmen knitted in white angora yarn and wearing black felt hats with a jingle bell on top. She’d bought it at the end of last year’s season, like she did most Christmas decorations, including the special china she would use on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Her black velvet pants fit perfectly, in spite of the goodies she’d munched as she cooked, baked and wrapped.
Once she had the SUV loaded, she bade Betsy good-bye; then list in hand, she headed out to deliver all the treats, including some to a couple of shut-ins from church and to finish errands. Two blocks from home, she had to up the wiper blades to high to keep up with the dumping snow. It was quickly moving from beautiful to trouble and would do nothing to speed her along. Would Gordon’s plane have difficulty landing? Mentally she reviewed the winter prep Gordon and Charlie had done on Charlie’s Jeep: blanket, flares, winter antifreeze, snow scraper. He’d be okay. He was a good driver and had grown up in snow country. She double-checked to make sure her cell phone was charged and actually in her purse.
Right, leave the worry in God’s hands. And fight the frissons of anger at having been ignored that kept blind-siding her. The other side of her kept whispering that there would be a good reason to stay calm; whatever was happening was out of Gordon’s control.
That thought was not particularly calming either.
White swirled and danced, so she turned her lights on. She should have brought cookies with her, since she was late. Something to soothe the savage beast, not that Christi would be savage, but Nora never appreciated the silent treatment either.
Christi ran from under the overhang as soon as she pulled up. “You’re late, Mom. You know I’ve got a tight schedule.”
“I know. Sorry.” She glanced over her shoulder to pull back out into the traffic. “You want to stop at Burger Hut for something to eat?”
“No, let’s just get to the church.”
Nora’s phone rang and she handed it to Christi. “Hope it’s your dad.”
“Hello? No, we’re on our way to church.” She covered the phone. “Charlie wants to know if it is all right for him to take a couple of guys home after the party.”
“To our house?”
“No, their houses.”
Nora regarded the snow caking along the bottom of her windshield. “This snow is looking worse than the weather gal predicted.”
Christi listened, then turned to her mother. “He says it’s supposed to lighten up. He says the guys aren’t wearing hikers or winter coats and that you’d hate to have them walk home in this.” She smiled.
Nora nodded agreement with a chuckle, then shook her head after Christi punched off. “Your brother could sell snow to Eskimos.”
Nora swung the car into the church parking lot. She could see tire tracks through the accumulated snow.
“I’ll see if I can get a ride home, okay?”
“That would be a help. Or maybe Charlie can swing by here and pick you up. Let me know.” This was one of those times she was glad both her children had cell phones. While she often hated the intrusive things, keeping in touch was easier with them than without. So why had Gordon called the office and not her? They would have to have a conversation when he got home.
In what seemed like minutes instead of hours, it was time to head back out into what Nora would nearly call a storm, to pick up Christi. Charlie—in the middle of his charitable ride giving after the party—had called to say he’d be home late.
Christi leaned her head against the headrest. “Charlie call?” Those two were always checking on each other as though they shared one heart.
“Said he’d be home about ten. I’ll fry us some burgers as soon as we get home.”
“Good, what about Dad?”
Yes. What about Dad? As annoyed as she was, Nora felt concern creeping in with the snow. “I’m going to call and see what the flight is doing in this snow.”
Christi nodded. “Okay. I’m starved.”
“But you finished?”
“We did. Might have some touching up to do, but Mrs. Sorenson and Bruce came to help.”
When they got inside, Christi bit into a buttery sand-bakle before even removing her jacket. She devoured a second one and headed off to put her things away.
Nora checked on the number and dialed the phone, holding it between ear and shoulder as she dug out the frying pan. So much for grilling outside. She punched in the flight numbers and listened for the response. The last leg of Gordon’s flight had been delayed out of New York and should arrive in Minneapolis between ten and eleven.
She and Christi were just finishing their burgers when she noticed Christi’s frown.
“Oh… a headache,” Christi replied. She rubbed her temples and moved her head around to pull the tension out of her neck muscles.
Nora glanced at the clock. Charlie should be home by now. Gordon was out in the snow. Her Christmas felt scattered, as though already changing. She didn’t like it. She stacked their plates and took them to the sink, then returned and rubbed her daughter’s neck and shoulders.
“Um, thanks, Mom, that helps.”
Betsy stood and looked toward the living room, her ears pricked. She woofed when the doorbell rang, then barked several sharp yelps as she headed for the front door, Nora right after her.
Over here, stat!”
Jenna turned at the doctor’s command. The emergency room at Jefferson Memorial had escalated beyond busy with the arrival of two ambulances from a pileup on the interstate. Although she wished no one to suffer, the controlled chaos forced her to operate as nurse Jenna Montgomery, not as Heather’s mother. It helped her push down, with professional efficiency, the ever-present pain that nagged at her gut—that… perhaps this was their last Christmas together.
Grabbing the end of the gurney, so one of the EMTs could return to the ambulance, Jenna caught the words the woman threw over her shoulder as she left.
“We have two more.”
Two more, how bad? The questions buzzed Jenna’s mind as she automatically checked the saline bag hanging on a post above the patient. Obviously, they were heading for the OR, and from the look of the man on the gurney, it might not be soon enough. They pushed through the swinging door and handed their charge off to the green-garbed OR team.
Jenna headed back down the hall at a trot, adrenaline pumping energy into her legs and mind. This man must have been the most severely injured if they did triage at the door. She dodged another gurney, this one bearing a small body, and raced down the hallway.
They had a knife wound in cubicle one, asthma in two and alcohol poisoning in three, plus all the chairs in the waiting room were full of people getting antsy with the wait. So much for Saturday night at the circus. While they were the closest hospital to the accident, they were not a major-trauma center, one of the reasons she agreed to work in the ER. She’d done her years at the University of Southern California Medical Center in Los Angeles and moved away to a small town, partly to get out of it. Here in North Platte, Nebraska, their main patients were those on welfare who used the ER as a doctor’s office.
Another gurney trundled into the now-crowded ER and she motioned them to a long wall. While they’d practiced disaster procedures, this was their first execution. Bad choice of words.
“Mary Ann, call in some of the reserves.” She gave the order in spite of the fact that she wasn’t the charge nurse tonight, but Parker was up to her elbows with the knife wound on a man who was coming off a high. His growls could be heard clear to pediatrics.
“Get me an orderly, stat.” The order came from the knife wound cubicle. Oh, oh, Parker was mad. The man she was working on had made a big mistake.
The teenager on the gurney by the wall had tears streaming down his face.
She stepped to his side. “Is the pain that bad?”
“No, it was my fault.” He turned his head away, so she wiped his tears, since one of his arms was in a sling and the other taped to a firm board.
She checked the injury ticket tucked in beside him. Possible concussion, X-rays needed on left shoulder and right arm. The right side of his face was already swollen, looked like it needed an X-ray too. Painful, but not life-threatening. “Have your parents been notified you are here?”
“I think so. My dad’s gonna kill me.” He looked up from his less swollen eye. “He is.”
“I seriously doubt that.” In a rush, thoughts of life without Heather filled her mind, closing her throat. For a moment, she couldn’t speak, then managed, “He’s going to be grateful you are alive….” She heard her name being called. “I’ll be right back.” She patted his hand and turned away. “Coming.”
“Can you go talk to those waiting, please?” Dr. Madison always took time to be polite with the nurses, one of the traits that made him so popular.
Jenna nodded and pushed her way through the door that locked from the outside. She stopped in front of the occupied chairs lined up around the room and relayed her message. Reaction was mixed, mostly unhappy, others trailing out to make new plans.
“Thank you for understanding,” Jenna said, although she knew they hadn’t. She turned back to punch in the numbers on the keypad and return to the ER. Someone shouting from behind the closed door sent her hurrying through. The man with the knife wound was now brandishing a hypodermic needle and screaming obscenities. Parker leaned against a wall, clutching her arm. Two familiar EMTs pushed through the door from the ambulances, one of them big enough to take out the screamer, and the other blond and cute, a cheerleader type known for her ability to talk someone down.
Jenna stepped into the cubicle to check the vitals of the asthmatic. The middle-aged man was sitting on a stool, the pulse oximeter attached to his thumb. He raised his eyebrows.
“Quite a production out there,” he said, his voice still raspy.
“You’re telling me.”
In the next cubicle, Jenna smiled at an older man and his wife. “Let’s go for a ride,” she said, motioning for one of the orderlies. Together they lifted the man from the examining table to a gurney and trundled him out the door.
Maybe they could start caring for those waiting now. It was proving to be quite the night. Soon she’d be crawling into her own bed, visions of a perfect Christmas… well, not exactly dancing in her head, but she’d do her darnedest to make it memorable for her and Heather. One just like the old days.
When Jenna had handed her charge off to the floor nurses, she paused long enough to get a drink of water before returning to the ER.
“You had a bad time, huh?” the nurse asked.
“You can say that again.” The medical floor, with the lights dimmed in the hall and patients sleeping, seemed like a haven after the chaos below.
It caught her off-guard, this mention of her daughter’s name, spoken with caring and warmth. They’d been in and out of this hospital so many times that everyone knew her daughter—and loved her. The question made her shift from nurse to mother, and she rolled her bottom lip between her teeth. With a sigh, she answered, “Getting weaker.”
“Any movement on the donor list?”
“Not much.” They’d been on it for months. Should have been on the list for years, but with so many people needing heart transplants, the patient had to reach a near critical level of need before being added to the list. The fastest way off the list was dying. Jenna knew all the reasons for the rules, but it was different when the patient was her only child. Although at twenty, Heather wouldn’t appreciate being called a child, even though due to her frailness, she seemed so young.
“I’ll pour you a cup of coffee and you can drink it on the way down.”
“Thanks, I take it black.” While she waited, Jenna rubbed her forehead and leaned her rear against the counter, sighing out the adrenaline that had kept her hopping. Hopefully, the caffeine would restore some vitality.
She took the proffered cup. “Thanks.” And headed for the elevator. Third floor was medical and orthopedic, while the ER took up a big part of the street-level floor. She pushed herself back to nurse mode.
Back down in the ER, the chaos created by the druggie had settled and patients were being moved through the examining rooms as efficiently as usual. Those from the accident were taken care of, a helicopter transporting the most severely injured man to another hospital, the small child still in surgery and the others treated and either released or moved to another floor.
By the time six forty-five A.M. rolled around, they’d even had some time to catch up on the charting. Jenna tapped the enter key on the screen to finish her shift as the blast of an ambulance siren split the early morning.
“You go home,” said the nurse who came on in fifteen minutes.
Jenna hesitated, instinctively turning toward the doors when they slid open to admit the same two EMTs and a gurney with a slight form under the blanket. Her breath caught so quickly, she sagged a bit in the knees. The light hair spilling out from the still body—could it be an adult, so small?—looked familiar. Just like the strands on the daughter she’d left so reluctantly hours earlier. Heather. Oh, Heather.
The crisp bite of the weather on her nose belied the sun lifting itself above the horizon. Jenna quietly closed the car door and leaned against it, closing her eyes, forcing herself to take deep breaths and not whimper. The aftermath of realizing that the last patient on her shift wasn’t her daughter had drained her of… of what? What had she had before? She’d already been running on empty. The few seconds when the child on the gurney had become Heather had been the manifestation of everything she’d prayed to God to be saved from.
What the sun did best at this time of year was set all the diamond snowflakes afire, although the icicles could begin dripping by midmorning, and black asphalt patches showed through the plowed streets and sidewalks. Six inches wasn’t bad for a first real snowfall.
Taking both hands to wipe her wet cheeks, she straightened her shoulders. She needed to see Heather, hold her. She’d promised to make waffles. And a perfect Christmas. Would her daughter still be here when the strawberries ripened and they could enjoy their favorite breakfast of waffles with strawberries and whipped cream? Somehow frozen ones just didn’t make the grade.
The house greeted her with silence. A note on the table said that Matilda next door had been in to check on Heather. She was sleeping now, but the neighbor had seen the kitchen lights on during the night. Sometimes when she couldn’t sleep, Heather would heat milk in the microwave, add vanilla and sip it while checking e-mail and message boards. One of her favorites was a chat room for those on transplant lists.
Heather would get really quiet for a few days after a post announced that one of her online friends had passed away.
Jenna had nightmares about writing that post for her daughter. Leaving her jacket, gloves and ski band for her ears in a heap on a kitchen chair, she left her purse beside the computer and hurried down the hall. The oxygen machine hummed in Heather’s bedroom and a meow announced that Elmer, Heather’s half-Siamese cat, wanted out. Heather usually made sure the door was open a crack so Elmer could use a paw to drag it farther open and find his litter box in the bathroom. Elmer had a way with opening things.
After letting the cat out, Jenna peeked in to see her daughter’s limp hair spread over the pillow, so like the little girl in the ER. The omnipresent oxygen prongs were in her nose and there was more color in the faded pink sheet than Heather’s face. Even with the oxygen, there was a faint bluish tinge around her mouth and eyes. Her poor heart could hardly pump enough blood to get sufficient oxygen. Jenna resisted the urge to check her daughter’s pulse—Heather always woke up—but instead left the door slightly open for Elmer and detoured to clean out the litter box before heading for her own room and a welcome shower.
Standing under the pulsating spray, she closed her eyes and lost herself in the steam, the water and the weariness. Even though she considered herself a woman of faith, the fear that Heather’s… leaving… was imminent could not be contained as it had been in other years. Four days before Christmas and they’d not even put up the tree yet. What kind of mother was she?
You didn’t wake me up.”
Eyes bleary from lack of sleep, Jenna looked up from her pillow to see Heather standing beside her bed, with Elmer draped over her arm. Her long flannel nightshirt looked so much like the long flannel gowns of younger years that it took Jenna a moment to orient to today. Her little girl with the wispy gilt hair was still there inside the emaciated body of her grown daughter. Jenna’s mumble changed to real speech as she forced a smile. “You were really sleeping and I didn’t want to disturb you. Besides, I desperately needed a few winks.”
“You want me to make breakfast?”
“Wouldn’t you rather have waffles like we planned?”
“Real ones that you make, not the freezer kind.” Elmer squirmed in her arms, so she hefted him up to be held against her chest, where he licked her chin with a raspy tongue.
“I thought so.” Jenna stretched her arms with balled fists over her head and yawned. Oh, for the chance to sleep twelve straight hours or until she woke up naturally, not with a cry for help or the phone with more bad news. Please, Lord, let today be the day. This had been her prayer for so long that it was automatic. The day for a heart transplant, the day their new life would begin. One look at Heather’s pale face told her another transfusion would be needed soon.
“You taking a shower first? I could go start the bacon.”
“No, let me wash my face and brush my teeth. I had a shower last night.” Last night, right. She glanced at the clock. Two point five hours ago, to be exact. She sat up and searched for her slippers with her feet.
“We’ll go to church later?” Heather asked, a small smile pulling up the corners of thin lips.
Since Dr. Cranston had said no crowds, a televised church service had been their church, the living room their sanctuary and the lumpy couch their pew. This had become their normal worship for the last few months. Thank God for congregations that could afford to tape their services for the benefit of those housebound. Heather hadn’t been a regular at youth group or choir for longer than Jenna cared to remember. And with her erratic hours at the hospital, she wasn’t able to do much better.
Jenna staggered into her bathroom, turned on the water and stared at the face in the mirror. Dark shag-cut hair that hadn’t been on the pillow long enough to become bed head, hazel eyes that looked sunken into dark circles and a wide mouth that needed a reminder on how to smile without encouragement. Worry and fear chased away any vestiges of fat on her petite five-foot frame. Arlen used to call her pleasantly rounded. She needed belts on all her pants nowadays. Once, she had been considered cute and attractive, now all she looked was worn. Would all this waiting and hoping have been any easier had her husband been there to hold her when she cried and share the care of their failing daughter? She’d never know; a sniper’s bullet in some unpronounceable place in the Middle East had made sure of that.
She concentrated on brushing her teeth. You’d have thought she’d have learned to not look in the mirror by now. All it did was make her more depressed. After tousling her hair with damp fingers to give it some body, she dressed and, still slipper-clad, made her yawning way to the kitchen, where the smell of frying bacon perked up her taste buds.
“You’d better hurry, the bacon’s near done.” Heather, now catless, pointed to the waffle iron. “It’s heating.”
“Yes, Ms. Chef. I will indeed hurry. However, you might turn that frying pan on low to give me a bit of time.”
Heather did as suggested and asked what she’d asked for the last week. “Do you think we can decorate the tree today?”
“Yes.” Guilt shortened Jenna’s reply. She brought the ingredients out of the pantry and set them on the counter. “You up to it?”
A nod accompanied the turning of bacon strips. Heather rolled her head around, stretching her neck. “I’ll sit down for a bit.”
Keeping one eye on her daughter, Jenna cracked an egg and poured the yolk from one half-shell to the other, the egg white slipping into the small bowl for the mixer. The yolk went into a second bowl for the batter. She set the two egg whites to beating on high and continued measuring the oil, milk and flour into the hand-beaten egg yolks. Using a mix would be easier, but these were the lightest and crispiest waffles anywhere. She’d bake them all and freeze the leftovers. Like father, like daughter—this had been his favorite breakfast too.
Strange, she would have thought that after eighteen years, the memories would be faded. But she could see him sitting in the chair at the table as if it were yesterday. Only he’d never grown facial lines or slashes of silver in his dark-blond hair.
“Did you return Grammie’s call?”
“I talked to her yesterday before work.”
“She called last night and left a message.”
Guilt cut like a scalpel. “No.” Jenna’s sigh came from deep within, where she tried to banish futile things like sighs and guilt. “I forgot to check the machine.”
“We can call her after breakfast. The waffle maker is ready.”
“No, she’s not.”
“I mean the machine.” A chuckle actually brightened her eyes.
“Oh.” Jenna folded the stiffly beaten egg whites into the batter and tossed the wire-whip into the sink. “Here goes.” She poured the right amount of batter onto the grid and closed the lid. “Now we wait.”
“Oh, the bacon.”
“I’ll get it.” Jenna pushed the frying pan to the back of the stove, and taking a mug off the rack, she poured herself a cup of long overdue coffee. “You want some?”
“No thanks. I’d rather have hot chocolate.”
It was the waffle-and-beverage ritual. Same questions, same answers. Only it wouldn’t be the same much longer. Oh, Lord, I cannot do this. I cannot watch my daughter die. She forced energy into her voice. “Coming right up.” Keeping her hands busy usually helped keep her mind at bay, but not anymore. She would have to try harder. She would not let Heather see her fear. Heather needed hope.
After setting a mug of water in the microwave, Jenna took a packet of mix out of the apple canister on the counter and a sip from her coffee. The light still glowed on the waffle maker.
She set the packet and the mug of hot water on the table in front of Heather and grabbed two plates out of the cupboard. Lifting the lid on the machine with a darkened light, she frowned. Stuck. Why hadn’t she sprayed it with Pam? Because it was supposed to be nonstick. Calling herself unprintable names, she grabbed a fork and dug the waffle off the grill. Half responded to her demands and half needed to be encouraged.
“It’s just a waffle, Mom.” A note of pleading made Jenna catch her breath. Her daughter was far too intuitive. They didn’t talk about the end of Heather’s life. They only talked about the transplant list, the others on the transplant list, Elmer, Jenna’s job. Anything but their real issue.
“I know.” Another sigh. “I know.” She fetched the spray and doused the waffle maker before closing the lid to let it heat again. Even with all the oil in the batter, the blasted thing stuck. You should have… She ignored the inner voice and took a swig of her coffee, immediately regretting her action. Now her tongue burned along with her throat. Her nursing years helped her keep her stoic mask in place. “Darn” was not a strong enough word.
Pouring more batter into the machine gave her permission to keep her back to the table, where Heather was stirring her hot chocolate as if lumps on the top were a world-crashing event. After closing the lid with a silent admonition, which included something like “stick again and you’ll see the insides of the trash can,” she poured herself a glass of water and held the coolness in her mouth to cut the scalded sensation. So much for hurrying. As her mother always said, “The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get.”
This time the waffle fell away from the lid as she stuck the fork into the crispy dough. “Perfect.” She poured in more batter, closed the lid and carried her offering to the table. “Did you want a fried egg with this?”
Heather shook her head in the negative. “But thanks, Mom, you’re the best.”
The compliment nearly undid her. Jenna blinked and reached over to pat her daughter’s hand. This was fast becoming a morning for way too much emotion.
With her own waffle on a plate and a reminder to herself to bake and freeze the remaining waffles for later, she pulled the plug on the machine. She sat back down at the table so she and Heather could eat together, something that didn’t happen often enough. When she did take time for breakfast, a bowl of cereal or a bagel was a big deal. Often she came home from her shift too tired to eat and collapsed in bed like she had this morning, and usually noon had come and gone by the time she woke up.
But today was a special day. Tree time. It might be the last… Do not go there. She forced her mind to think on something else.
“So, did you ask Grammie?” Jenna asked.
“Uh-huh. She doesn’t think she can come for Christmas.”
Jenna laid her fork on her plate. “Why not?” Even though she knew better, she had to ask.
“Harold wants to go to Emily’s house.”
Harold was her mother’s second husband. He had a hard time dealing with Heather’s increasing frailness; so, like so many people, he opted to stay away. Harold was not one of her favorite people. Emily was his daughter, and with two small boys, she needed them to help open the mountain of presents.
Jenna had heard this excuse before. And her mother didn’t have the gumption to put her foot down.
A few minutes later, Jenna’s plate was scraped clean; Heather picked at hers. She’d fallen away from keeping up her side of the conversation. Jenna’s instincts picked up. Was her face paler?
“But Uncle Randy is coming.” Her daughter smiled weakly and then let her gaze fall back to her plate. Uncle Randy was Arlen’s younger brother, still single at thirty-seven. Jenna sometimes wondered about his not having a girlfriend, but he always made up for the other missing relatives. That had been another loss this last year, her father-in-law succumbed to the big C. And since Heather had been in the hospital again, she’d not been able to attend or help out with the funeral. Randy and his sister, Jessica, had taken care of everything. Not that Denver was that far away, but she’d not dared to leave. Jessica still held a bit of a grudge, but Randy had reassured her that he understood and caring for a barely living daughter was far more important than a funeral.
Jenna jerked her mind back from woolgathering, whatever that meant, and smiled at her daughter. “Sorry. How about we leave the cleanup until later and I’ll bring in the tree?”
“Good. I’ll put in a CD of carols.”
“Please.” Jenna stared at her daughter, her assessing inner nurse kicking back into control, the inner and outer mother trying not to think, Here we go again. “How about if you and Elmer stretch out on the couch while I get the boxes?”
“ ’Kay.” Heather pushed back her plate with half a waffle not eaten. She glanced around the room. “You know where he is?”
“I’da thought right here for a handout, but if he’s not snoozing on the back of the chair, I’ll go find him.” Elmer’s favorite place, other than on Heather, was the back of the recliner when the morning sun warmed the dark blue fabric.
Jenna watched as her daughter pushed her chair back, stood, paused for the world to stop spinning—like she always had as her heart grew weaker—and, after pushing her chair back in, made her slow way to the living room. Listening to the conversation between girl and cat, Jenna knew Elmer had been found. She dumped the last of her coffee down the drain and grabbed her jacket off the peg by the door. The garage was not heated.
By the time she’d hauled the plastic-covered fake spruce tree in from the garage, along with all the boxes of decorations, Heather was sound asleep on the sofa, covered by Elmer and the red-white-and-green crocheted afghan that waited all year in the interior of the leather ottoman for December 1 when Heather dragged it out. The afghan had definitely seen better days. Carols floated through the house, offering at least a semblance of Christmas cheer.
Why didn’t she let Heather use the afghan all year long if it gave her comfort? Shaking her head at another of those rules for living that she’d grown into, Jenna set the tree in front of the window that looked out onto the narrow front yard and thence the street. The sun was indeed doing its work of melting away the first snow. The ridges left by the snowplow were shrinking into ice lumps as the black asphalt overtook the vanishing white. Once the tree was in place, she pulled the plastic bag off the top and folded it to be used again. Straightening all the flattened branches and making sure the white lights were still wrapped around the branches took more time.
Still Heather slept on. Jenna wrestled with timing: Should they leave now or give the child a few more minutes of building Christmas? When was panic and when was wisdom? Oh, Father, You promised to give wisdom to those who ask. Well, it’s me again.
Jenna plugged in the lights to make sure all the strings were working. Sure enough, right in the middle, one was out. She dug in a box for the tester bulb and started in. Granted, leaving the lights on the tree made for ease in setting it up, still the testing was a pain in the rear. With Bing Crosby singing of a white Christmas, she headed back to the kitchen for another cup of fortifying coffee. On the return, cup in one hand, she laid the back of her other on Heather’s forehead. Sure enough, just as she’d suspected, she was warm, not hot yet, but not normal either.
So, do we wait a bit, take some aspirin and see? Or go in now?
“I’m not going to the hospital.” Heather’s voice caught Jenna by surprise.
“I thought you were sleeping.”
“I was, but I felt your hand. You said we could decorate the tree today.” Heather pushed Elmer off to the side and scooted back against the arm of the sofa, where she could see the tree. “There’s a string of lights in the middle that aren’t working.”
“Thank you, Ms. Supervisor. I was working on that, but I needed a coffee fix.” Jenna held her cup up to prove it. “I will get right back on it.” She knew she should have bought the new lights that didn’t act this way, but re-stringing the entire tree was a monumental task.
“Sorry. Even with part of the lights out, it looks pretty.”
Jenna put her cup down and picked up the tester again. “You watch, it’ll be the one at the end.”
“Then go from that end now.”
“Good idea, why didn’t I think of that?” Jenna did three bulbs and tossed her daughter a raised-eyebrow look. “So even the light wires work to make a liar out of me.” She inserted one more. “Bingo.” All the lights came on. She stepped back to view her handiwork. Lights made all the difference. “You feel up to this?”
Heather nodded. “I’ll choose and you put them on the tree?”
“No fair.” Another indication that Heather was not telling her how cruddy she really felt. Heather loved hanging each ornament on the tree and talking about the story behind it. Jenna pushed the two boxes over to the couch, setting them on the coffee table so Heather could reach them without having to bend over. Bending over made her puff.
A five-foot tree didn’t hold an awful lot of decorations. Jenna set the angel in place and stepped back to sit on the sofa, where Heather sat cross-legged, the cat in her lap. The next Christmas ritual and then they were out the door for another trip to the hospital for Heather.
“I love Christmas trees.” Heather laid her head on her mother’s shoulder.
“You love Christmas period.”
“I know. My dad really loved Christmas too, didn’t he?”
Jenna began the recitation she did each year. “He did, especially after you were born. He said Christmas is for children and he planned on having lots of Christmases with you and whomever else God brought to us.”
This memory time had become a ritual with them. Since Heather had been only a little over two when her father was killed, she didn’t really remember him, but she remembered all the stories they’d shared and Christmas was a good time to bring them up.
Especially if this was to be their last Christmas.
Excerpted from One Perfect Day by Snelling, Lauraine Copyright © 2011 by Snelling, Lauraine. Excerpted by permission.
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