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At ten o'clock on the morning of September 4, exactly one month to the day since the accident, Dario Costanzo received a phone call he'd begun to fear would never arrive.
"I have news, signor" Arturo Peruzzi, chief neurologist in charge of Maeve's case, announced. "This morning, your wife awoke from her coma."
Sensing from the man's neutral tone that there was more to come that didn't bode well, Dario steeled himself to hear the rest. Over the last several weeks, he'd conducted enough research to know that brain damage resulting from a head injury came in many shapes and sizes, none of them good. "But? There is a 'but,' is there not, Doctor?"
"That is correct."
He'd thought himself prepared and found he wasn't prepared at all. Images of her as she'd looked the last time he'd seen her, with her head swathed in bandages and the rest of her hooked up to a bewildering array of tubes to keep her alive, clashed horribly with the way she'd been before everything began to go wrong.
Lovely, graceful, elegant.
Sunlight in motion.
And now? Abruptly, he sat down at his desk, afraid his legs would give way beneath him. "Tell me," he said.
"Physically she shows every sign of making a full recovery. Naturally she's very weak at present, but with appropriate therapy, we anticipate she'll soon be well enough to continue her convalescence at home. The problem, Signor Costanzo, is her mind."
Ah, Dio, not that! Better she had died than—
"…not to alarm you unduly. This is quite common following the kind of trauma she sustained, and is by no means as serious as you might suppose."
Realizing that in leaping to the worst possible conclusion, he'd missed what appeared to be a more optimistic prognosis, Dario wrenched his attention back to the neurologist's measured tones. "Exactly what are you suggesting, Doctor?"
"I'm suggesting nothing, signor. I'm telling you bluntly that your wife is suffering from retrograde amnesia. In short, she has no memory of her…recent past."
Peruzzi's hesitation was brief, but telling enough to arouse Dario's worst fears all over again. "How recent?"
"That's what makes her case unusual. As a rule, retrograde amnesia applies only to events immediately prior to the injury. In this instance, however, your wife's memory loss extends over a longer period. I am sorry to say that she does not appear to remember you or the life you shared."
Psychogenic amnesia...hysterical amnesia…. Terms that had meant little or nothing to him a month ago, but with which he'd become all too familiar since, floated to the forefront of Dario's mind. "Are you saying her amnesia is psychologically induced, as opposed to physiologically?"
"It would appear so. But the good news is that, regardless of which label we apply, the condition is rarely permanent. In time she will almost certainly regain her memory."
"How much time?"
"That I cannot predict. No one can. It's possible that she could recall everything within minutes of her returning to familiar territory. More likely, it will take days or even weeks, with flashes of memory trickling back in random order. What you must understand is that nothing is to be gained by trying to force her to remember that which, for whatever reason, she cannot recollect. Doing so could be highly detrimental to her well-being. And that, Signor Costanzo, brings me to the crux of this conversation. We have done our part. Now you must do yours."
How—the word had hounded him for over a month, begging for answers no one could give. How had he so badly misjudged the depth of her discontent? How, after all they'd promised each other, could she have turned to another man? How had she shown so little faith in him, her husband?
"Patience is the key. Bring her home when she's ready to leave the clinic, but don't immediately expose her to a crowd of strangers. Begin by making her feel safe and secure with you."
"How do I do that if she doesn't even remember me?"
"Once she is a little stronger, we'll explain to her who you are. We have no choice. You're her only next of kin, and she needs to know she is not alone in this world. But she has lost a year of her life, a frightening thing for anyone to face. Let her see that you care about the person she remembers herself to be. Then, as her trust in you grows, slowly reintroduce her to the rest of your family."
"The rest of my family happens to include our seven-month-old son. What do you suggest I do with him in the meantime? Pass him off as belonging to the cook?"
If the good doctor picked up on his sarcasm, he gave no sign. "Hide him," he said bluntly. "You have a sister and parents living close by. Surely one of them will look after him for a while?"
"Deceive her, you mean? How is that helping her?"
"The burden of guilt associated with her learning she has an infant son whom she's wiped from her memory might well shatter her sense of worth and leave her with permanent emotional scars. It goes against the very nature of motherhood for any normal woman to forget she bore a child. Of everything that has made up the fabric of your wife's life over the last year, this is the most delicate, and how you handle it, definitely the most critical."
"I see." And he did. Maeve might have woken up from her coma, but she was far from healed. "Is there anything else?"
"Yes. For now, do not expect her to be more than a wife in name only. Intimacy and what it connotes, with a man who might be her husband, but is, in fact, a virtual stranger, is a complication she can do without."
Fantastic! The one thing they'd always been good at was no longer in the cards, and he had to farm out Sebastiano to relatives. "Is there anything I can do to help her—besides sleep in another room and send our son to live somewhere else?"
"Certainly there is," Peruzzi informed him. "Your wife has lost her memory, not her intellect. She will have questions.
Answer them truthfully, but only as much as she asks for. In other words, don't elaborate, and above all don't try to rush matters. Think of each small fact you reveal as a building block in the empty canvas of her memory. When enough blocks are in place, she'll begin filling in the rest by herself."
"And if she doesn't like everything she learns?"
"It then becomes imperative that you, signor, remain calm and supportive. She must know that she can rely on you, regardless of what has happened in the past. Can you do that?"
"Yes," he said dully. What other choice did he have? "May I visit her in the meantime?"
"I cannot forbid it, but I urge against it. Regaining her physical stamina is enough for her to deal with at present, and your inserting yourself into the picture is more likely to compromise her progress than help it. Let it be enough that you'll soon be together again, with the rest of your lives to reestablish your connection to each other."
"I understand," Dario said, even though it was so far from the truth as to be laughable. "And I appreciate your taking time from your busy schedule to speak with me."
"It has been my pleasure. Would that I had such encouraging news to offer the families of all my patients. I will be in touch again when your wife is ready to come home. Meanwhile, I and her other doctors are always available to discuss her progress and address any concerns you might have. Ciao, Signor Costanzo, and good luck."
"Grazie e ciao."
Returning the phone to its cradle, Dario paced moodily to the window. In the shelter of the walled garden directly outside his study, Marietta Pavia, the young nanny he'd hired, sat on a blanket, singing to her charge. That a wife could forget the husband she'd grown tired of was understandable, if far from flattering. But how was it possible, he wondered bleakly, that a mother could erase from her mind and heart all memory of her firstborn?
Behind him another voice, cultured, authoritative, interrupted his musings. "I overheard enough to gather there's been a change in her condition."
Swinging around, he confronted his visitor. Black hair smoothed in a perfect classic chignon, and immaculately turned out in a slim-fitting ecru linen dress relieved only by the baroque pearls at her throat and ears, Celeste Costanzo belied her fifty-nine years and could easily have passed for a well-preserved forty-five. "You look ready to take the Milan fashion world by storm, Mother, rather than relaxing on the island," he remarked.
"Just because one is out of the public eye on Pantelleria is no reason to be slovenly, Dario—and don't change the subject. What is the latest news?"
"Maeve has emerged from her coma and is expected to make a full recovery."
"Then she's going to live?"
"Try not to sound so disappointed," he said drily. "She is, after all, the mother of your only grandson."
"She is an unmitigated disaster and I fail to understand why, in light of everything that happened, you continue to defend her."
"But that's the whole point, Mother. We can only guess at what really happened. Of the two people who know for sure, one is dead and the other has lost her memory."
"So that's her game now, is it? Pretending she can't remember she was leaving you and taking your son with her?" His mother curled her lip scornfully. "How convenient!"
"That's preposterous and you know it. Maeve's in no shape to put on any sort of act, and even if she were, her doctors are too experienced to be taken in by it."
"So you buy their diagnosis?"
"I do, and so must you."
"I'm afraid not, my son."
"I advise you to rethink that decision if you wish to be made welcome in my home," he suggested coldly.
Celeste's smooth olive complexion paled. "I am your mother!"
"And Maeve is still my wife."
"For how long? Until she decides to run away again? Until you find Sebastiano living on the other side of the world and calling some other man Papa? Tell me what it will take, Dario, to make you see her for the kind of woman she is."
"She's the woman who bore my son," he ground out, the anger that had festered for weeks threatening to boil over. "For all our sakes, kindly refrain from pointing out what you deem to be her shortcomings as a parent or a wife."
Unmoved, his mother said, "I don't imagine I'll have to, my dear. She'll do so for me."
Everyone at the clinic, from the lowliest aide to the loftiest doctor, who'd been so kind to her and looked after her so well came to say goodbye.
And who, when she'd asked what had happened to her, had said only that she'd been in a car accident and shouldn't worry that she couldn't remember because, eventually, it would all come back.
And who'd steadfastly waved aside her concerns about who was sending her flowers and paying the bills—all except for one young aide who'd carelessly let slip that "he" was, before the charge nurse shushed him with a glare that would have turned the Sahara to solid ice.
He who? Maeve wanted to demand, but sensing that answer wouldn't be forthcoming, instead asked, "Am I at least allowed to know where I'm going when I leave here?"
"Of course," the nurse said, adopting the sort of soothing tone one might apply to a fractious child. "Back to the place where you lived before, with the people who love you."
Wherever that was!
A few days before she was discharged, the doctors told her she was going to convalesce in a place called Pantelleria. She'd never heard of it.
"Who'll be there?" she asked.
She'd never heard of him, either.
"…your husband," they said.
And that left her too speechless to persist with any more questions.
Gathered now around the black limousine waiting to take her away, they all showered her with good wishes. "We'll miss you," they chorused, smiling and waving. "Stop in and see us when you're in the neighborhood, but under your own steam the next time."
And suddenly, after days of wanting nothing more than to be free of their round-the-clock vigilance, she was afraid to leave them. They were "after the accident" and all that anchored her to the present. "Before" was a missing chapter in the book of her life. That she was about to rediscover it and the man she'd apparently married during that time, should have filled her with elation. Instead it left her terrified.
Sensing her panic, the young nurse accompanying her to the airport touched her arm sympathetically. "Don't be alarmed," she said. "I'll see you safely to the plane."
The thought of mingling with the general public appalled her. She'd seen herself in a mirror and knew what a spectacle she presented. Despite the clinic's excellent food and the hours she'd lately spent in the sunlit gardens, she remained gaunt and pale. Her hair, once long and thick, was short now, no more than four or five inches, and barely covered the long curving scar above her left ear. Her clothes hung on her as if she'd lost a ton of weight or was suffering from some unspeakable illness.
When the car she was in arrived at the airport, though, it drew up not outside the departure terminal, but took a side road to a tarmac quite separate from the main runways, where a private jet stood and a uniformed steward waited to usher her aboard.
What kind of man was her husband, that she was entitled to such luxury, she who'd grown up in a working-class neighborhood in east Vancouver, the only child of a plumber and a supermarket cashier?
Remembering her parents and how much they'd loved the daughter born to them years after they'd given up hope of ever having children brought a rush of tears to her eyes. If they were still alive, she'd be going home to them, to the safe, neat little rancher on the maple-shaded street, half a block from the park where she'd learned to ride a two-wheeler bike when she was seven.
Her mom would fuss over her and bake her a blackberry pie, and her dad would tell her again how proud of her he was that she'd made something of herself and become such a success. But they were both dead, her father within weeks of retiring at sixty-eight, her mother three years later, and the neat little rancher sold to strangers. As a result, Maeve, already exhausted by the emotional upheaval of the day, was strapped in a divinely comfortable leather seat in an obscenely luxurious private aircraft, headed for a life that was nothing but a big, mysterious question mark.