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  • Stories

    2010 - 08.28


    Cocoa Fudge

                “Oh lord, Ruby, what in the world are you talkin’ about?”  My mother’s throaty, husky laugh caused short little bursts of cigarette smoke to come out of her nose and between her lips.

    “Oh Midge, don’t act like you don’t know what I’m a-talkin’ about now.  Law ha’ mercy, girl!  I wa’n’t born yesterday, you know, and neither was you.”

    Even through the haze of hairspray I could see how red Mama’s face was.  She slid her eyes toward me as if just then remembering I was in the room.

    “Now Ruby, you just watch that big ol’ mouth a-yours.  Lil pichers have big ears, y’know.”

    I hated those words.  Those words were usually followed by the demand that I leave the room and I so wanted to stay.  This was my favorite time of the week.  Saturday nights were like a special holiday to me, like a joyful rite of passage for a little girl that desperately wanted to be included in the “grown up’s talk”.  It always happened when my mother, aunts, and older cousins all got together.

    Tonight was a larger than usual group of women.  A couple of the neighborhood women had joined us, their laughter blending in so well with the others, all in symphony with the katydids and crickets that sang just outside the opened, unscreened windows.

    We were in the “front bedroom”, meaning the one closest to the living room.  There were only two bedrooms in my grandmother’s house.  I had a grandfather, but it just seems as if he was always a hazy memory, an “also-ran”, to these forages into the trials and tribulations of being an adult woman in the mid fifties in the deep south.  Papaw was in the living room, smoking his unfiltered Pall Malls, a deep frown on his face that would vanish when I stood by his rocking chair, as long as I didn’t block his view of the black and white images maneuvering their way across the television screen.

    Mamaw, the matriarch of this extended family, was sitting on “her end” of the couch, suffering through the news, waiting on “her program” to come on TV.

    As I waited for my marching orders, I watched Mama dip her fingers into a glass of water, raising her arms to wrap small, tight loops of curls around her moistened fingers.  She locked each strand into place with a black bobbypin.  The rubber tips must’ve come off her old ones because there were a couple of new cards of them on the dresser.  The woman’s smiling image on the rectangular piece of thin cardboard was interrupted by the long straight rows of black metal pins.

    The sweltering summer air was redolent with various scents that represented these rituals.  Perfume, some of it just the cheap dime store variety, wafted past my nose when any of them moved across the room.

    Mama was still laughing when she reached over to dip her fingers into the water, knocking it over.  All the women shrieked, and giggled at the same time.

    “Lawsie, just look what you done went and did now, Midge!  God, what a mess.  Susie, hurry-quick, go grab us a towel.”

    Fifteen-year-old Susie did as she was told.  No one questioned a grown up in this family.  It never occurred to us “youngins” that we could register a complaint.  It’s just the way things were done.  A grown up told you to do something-you did it.  It was very simple.  Besides, I’d seen a cousin or two dare to question a member of our family.  After he or she handed Mamaw, or Mama, or Aunt Anyoneofthem a switch with shaking hands, they never again had a problem with doing as they were told.  Who said Southerners were slow?

    The bottles of Avon liquid deodorant, cups of coffee (in that heat!), tubes of varying shades of lipstick, matching nail polish, round plastic curlers with tightly fitting covers-all of it was snatched from the rapidly advancing pool of water with stray hairs floating in the wake.  The women would bump into each other in their haste, then laugh all the harder because they knew they were their own stumbling block.  No big tragedy.  It was only water, for God’s sake.  Susie yanked the hand-crocheted doily from the top of the dresser, spraying me with water, before she dropped it on the cabbage rose linoleum.

    Mama mopped up most of the water, then leaned out the window and wrung out the threadbare cloth.  She then sat on the windowsill and dabbed at her flushed face and neck, grinning at the coolness of the damp rag.  She turned a look of mock disapproval toward the other side of the small room.

    “Now see, if’n you hadn’t been a-sayin’ stuff you shouldn’t a-been a-sayin’, Miss Ruby, that wouldn’t a-happened, now would it?”

    My aunt Ruby just stuck her tongue out at her younger sister then grinned, the red of her lipstick smudged onto her slightly crooked teeth looked like blood.

    “Well, you started it, Miss Midge.”

    “I most certainly did not!  Who started that whole mess, anyway?”

    I could’ve found my way through the darkest starless winter night by the twin spots of brilliant red on Susie’s cheeks.

    “All I said was that some ol’ goofy boy at school asked me for a date.  It ain’t my fault all of you’uns got crazy like that.”

    Evelyn from next door roared with laughter.  “Well it’s fer shure it don’t take much to get y’all started.  Law, y’all are a mess.”

    Ruby straightened her back, puffed out her ample chest resplendent with the job her white lace slip did in holding it all back.

    “I was merely tellin’ Susie that she had to be careful, that all boys, no matter how old they are, only want one thing.  And why buy the cow when they can get the milk fer free?  That’s all I said.  Then Midge started that ‘lil pichers and big ears’ stuff.  Next thang I know we’s all runnin’ for stuff to clean up her mess.”

    Mama, her own slip a little more worn than her sister’s, threw her arms around Ruby.  “You know, if I didn’t love you so much…”

    Ruby returned the embrace, laying her head on top of Mama’s head.  “Yeah, I know.  You’d kick my ass.  Tell ya what, lil Sis…anytime you think you’re big enough, you know where I live.”

    The room erupted with laughter so loud it forced Mamaw off the couch.  “What’re y’all causin’ so much commotion about in here, anyway?”

    Ruby pulled Mamaw into her arms, forcing her to share her embrace with them.  “Lord Mama, it’s your youngin’ here, Midge.  She’s in here causin’ all sorts a problems.  You know how she is.”

    Mamaw sniffed, pulling gently free of the hold her daughters had on her, and frowned.  “I know how all a you’uns are, that’s what I know.  What I don’t know is where my snuff is.  Did one of you’uns hide it from me again?  If I find out you did…”

    Evelyn dared to utter the words,  “Mae, what d’ya want to dip that ol’ snuff fer, anyway?”

    Here at last I could do my part, avert an argument that would end in Mamaw telling Evelyn to get her raggedy ol’ ass out of our house and go home where she belonged.

    “Mamaw, I know where it is.  It’s on the mantle in the back bedroom.  I saw it there awhile ago.”

    Mamaw patted my face with callused slender fingers.  “That’s my baby.  Gloria Lynn is such a good girl.  Now y’all best behave.  Don’t make me come back in here agin, y’hear me?”

    Every woman and girl in the room assured her that yes, they had heard every word she had said and they knew exactly what she meant.  We all knew Mamaw wouldn’t come back and do anything more drastic than to tell us to hush our mouths if we knew what was best for us.

    Mamaw was the ultimate authority figure in our family.  No matter if you physically lived in her house or not, if you were related, her word was law.  No matter what your mother or father may have told you, no matter that you had permission to do something, once Mamaw told you no, you better never try to sway her.  There was no cajoling Mamaw once she’d put her foot down.

    The year before Mamaw had told me and my cousin Susie to do something.  It seemed that Susie didn’t agree and convinced me (by pinching blue marks on my arms) to accompany her in flight to avoid persecution.  We ran around the back of the house.  I still remember Mamaw yelling to us,  “I won’t run after you.  You always have to come back, and I never forget.  Go on, run your lil lags off.  I’ll be here a-waitin’ when you get back.”

    We’d ran around to the back of the house and slipped into the kitchen door while Mamaw was still in the front yard promising us what was going to happen.  We slid under one of the beds and the minute we stopped giggling we fell asleep.  Mamaw was kind enough to let us take a short nap before she pushed the long, wicked switch under the bed.  Swiping her arm back and forth so she could sting the legs of both her granddaughters as we came scrambling out, crying and begging, swearing we’d never, as long as we lived, ever run from her any more.  It took several days for the angry red welts to fade, but we never ran from her again.

    It was by unspoken agreement that the discussion of men and all their failings was over for this evening.  The ladies would kindly adjoin to the kitchen.  It was time to make the candy-cocoa fudge candy.

    Making cocoa fudge was an experiment in patience for all of us.  No matter how many of the women tried, no matter what different technique they may use, it rarely turned out right.  I’d stand near the stove, inhaling the sweet, delicious aroma of the bubbling broth, hoping that this Saturday night it would turn out the way the box promised it would.

    Whoever was cooking would eventually declare that yes there was a hard ball formed in the cup of cold water.  It was time to pour the candy into the large buttered platter waiting on the kitchen table.  It was then carefully carried out to the screened in back porch so that it could “set up”.

    By this time, any neighbor women that had been present for the bedroom follies had gone home, to no doubt make their own cocoa fudge.  We would all leave the kitchen to join my grandparents in the living room.  The adults would suffer through “The Lone Ranger” for my benefit, the news for Papaw’s benefit, then God help us, Saturday night wrestling for Mamaw’s benefit.

    As long as I live, I’ll never forget the transformation that overtook my sweet Mamaw when she watched wrestling.  It was as if some demon had possessed her faint, humped-back, rounded pot-bellied, body.  She would lean forward, seeming to get as close to the action as possible, and her eyes would become maniacal.  Anger would distort her face, creating a mask of devilish hatred for whichever wrestler she wanted murdered in the ring.

    “Look out, he’s right behind you!  They Law…that’s what you get, you stupid fool!  Oughta get yore head bashed in fer not watchin’ what’s a-goin’ on.  C’mon, get up!  Gawd, I wish I could knock that fool out myself.  Hurry!  Get yore ugly butt off the mat!”

    As the referee counted, I could see dust motes floating through the room as she slammed her fist repeatedly against the arm of the couch.  She’d bang her feet on the floor, trying in vain make her man in the ring follow her directions.  If only he’d listened, he could’ve won every bout.  If only either one of them could have heard over the screaming audience, they would’ve heard everyone in the houses on our street shouting out warnings.  They just never listened.

    Since Mamaw seemed as ancient as time itself, I used to worry that she would become ill with all this screaming and shouting.  Mama would tell her she’d best just calm down or she’d give herself a heart attack.  It never alarmed Mamaw.  Papaw would just sit there, smoking his Pall Malls and looking at his wife as if she’d lost her last marble.  I was always thankful when wrestling was over and Mamaw was still alive, even if she was mad at the world in general, and all of us in particular.

    Papaw would pull himself out of the rocker to shuffle across the room.  He’d inform us he was going to bed after he’d used the bathroom.  We would wish him sweet dreams, sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite, never understanding why he felt the need to tell us he had to pee.

    It was time for the movie.  Late night Saturday was the highlight of the evening for me.  During a commercial one of the women would run to the back porch to get the candy.  After determining the condition of the confection, she would bring us the needed utensils for eating it.  If I was handed a spoon, I knew the candy was thin and runny.  If I was handed a fork, I knew it had “set up” like concrete and I was going to have to chisel it off the platter.

    We would get in the floor, forming a circle around the large oval platter, eating paraphernalia in hand.  Mamaw would sit in Papaw’s rocking chair, the only one with a saucer of candy that had been scooped out just for her.  We’d place our bottle of RC nearby, but out of the way.  The movie would begin and our eyes would be fixed on the screen.  The only sound in the room would be metal against ceramic, and feminine sighs of contentment.

    I learned so much from the women in my family.  I learned about spousal abuse (not just wife abuse since dear Evelyn next door was prone to whacking her husband with a frying pan).  I learned the way men made more money because women were really just frail specimens of humanity.  I learned that true strength isn’t in yelling or threatening obscenities, it’s a quiet calm deep inside of you.  I learned that times can be tough but you take care of your own, you don’t ask for or expect a handout.  I learned to have pride-in myself and in my family.  I learned to be loyal and stubborn in that loyalty.  And in the decades since that time, I’ve learned there is no substitute for the simple contentment equal to Saturday night and cocoa fudge.

    Life’s Lessons

    I leaned back in my chair, staring at the computer monitor, reading the email I had gotten, asking me how I was feeling, how was I doing now that I was in the middle of chemotherapy.  I read the joking references to my baldness and all the other things that go along with chemo.  I suddenly lost interest in those well-meaning but sometimes misplaced sentiments.  Some of my friends feel the only way to handle such devastation is to joke about it.  Today wasn’t a day I wanted to laugh.  I’m usually a very upbeat person but even I have my “down days”.  I guess this was one of them.

    As I gazed off into space, I absent-mindedly rubbed the right side of my chest.  The side of my chest that was barren, left with only a lumpy scar that ran from the center of my chest, underneath my arm, to the beginning of my shoulder blade.

    I mourned the fact that it had been the eighteenth surgery I’d been forced to have in my life, all for different problems.  I was thinking how unlucky I was, how sad it was that I had been struck with breast cancer when I was still in my forties. I had dealt with the physical end of the disease and had even convinced family and friends that it was no big deal.  But it was a big deal physically, and an even bigger deal emotionally.

    I have always prided myself that I could deal with anything life threw my way; there were no obstacles too big to overcome.  The one thing that I had said to both my daughters throughout their lives came back to haunt me now.  “If you don’t like the hand that you were dealt, reshuffle the cards.”  Could I do that for myself now as I had done many times in the past?  Could I regroup my thoughts, my emotions, in a way that would help me to view this from a different perspective?

    I remembered that a friend of mine had asked me what I had learned from having breast cancer and the subsequent mastectomy.  At the time I had snorted derisively.  Learned?  This was supposed to have helped me learn some sort of valuable life lesson?

    I had thought that I was master of my emotions but this disease had robbed me of that assurance.  Now I had to force myself to let go of the unaccustomed self-pity and anger, to look at it as objectively as possible; I began to see there had been lessons in all this horror.  If I focused, I could see them clearly.

    I learned that I was tougher than I had ever thought I could be but I was more vulnerable than I had ever admitted because I was now one of “those people” that cancer happened to.  I was never again going to be one of those women that felt that breast cancer happened to someone else.

    I learned that sometimes love comes with a deep and frightening rage.  I learned that because my family was filled with anger at my diagnosis and wanted to know why God had made me so ill.  I discovered that although I tried to assure them that God didn’t make me ill, that He had in fact saved my life, they had to come to the same eventual conclusion on their own.

    I had painfully learned that most of the people I had considered my friends were not my friends.  I had learned that the majority of them were merely fair weather acquaintances and that when I really need a friend, they ran and hid in the shadows.  The few that were left were the ones that brought cookies, sent email, called just to say hello, and would always be dear to my heart.

    I learned that cancer is sometimes harder on the loved ones than it is on the patient.

    I learned that my daughters now realized I was not immortal, that one day they were going to lose their mother.  I learned that it was going to be more difficult for them than I had feared.  I knew there were going to be times we had to sit down and discuss this and that, somehow, I had to help them let me go when that time came.

    I learned that this had, in many ways, been more difficult for my mother than the others.  When I put myself in her place and imagined I had almost lost my daughter, it scared me to the depth of my soul.

    I learned that my husband was my hero.  When the time came to change the bandages on my chest, he did it with unflinching love, leaning over to kiss the scar and bringing tears to my eyes and a deeper love to my heart.  I learned that he is my best friend, that he would be there even if the entire world walked away from me.

    I learned that tomorrow is truly promised to no one, that we should treasure each moment as the rare and beautiful gift that it is.  I learned that I am actually an exceedingly lucky woman, that I have been blessed.

    All at once this was no longer one of my “down days” and I replied to my latest email with a thankful smile on my face and joyful laughter my heart.

    Frozen Field

    “Over the river and through the woods—just two blocks away from where the hell am I and five miles north of bored to death. You’re lost, ain’t you?”
    “Unlike you, I know exactly where I am. Why so worried? That body won’t spoil, it’s in cold storage in the trunk.”
    “I still think you’re a liar. The only bodies in this car are ours. But pretty soon it’s going to be your dead body if you’re lying. I know Benny gave you a name.”
    “Yeah, he did and I always do the jobs he gives me. Just shut up and enjoy the scenery. You may never see anything this pretty again.”
    “Pretty? Ain’t nothing out there but snow on top of snow. How the hell you’re going to dig a hole for that body, I’ll never know.”
    “Oh, but I’m not. You are.”
    “What? You’re crazy. I’m not gonna get out and freeze my stones to dig a hole for some sap too stupid to stay out of Benny’s way. How he couldn’t see Benny coming and avoid being seen, I’ll never know since the man’s fat enough to have his own solar system.”
    “You ever think that you should use your brain more’n your mouth, Jake? You have any idea how bad Benny hated that?”
    “Like I give a big rat’s ass what Benny don’t like. He’s nothing; just a speck of dog shit on the toe of my shoe. No way he should’ve taken over when Vance was killed.”
    “Uh, he’s the reason Vance was killed, or did you forget that? Benny’s ruthless, Jake, and you’ve never believed that.”
    “You’re right, I don’t believe it. He’s small-time and he’ll never have my respect.”
    I pulled the car to the side of the dirt road. Our tire tracks had cut deep in the snow that was quickly getting deeper. When I sighed it felt as if it came from the pit of my stomach.
    “Here’s the shovel, Jake, start digging.”
    “Why me?”
    “Benny said it’s part of your punishment for disrespecting him.”
    “That lousy, no good son of…” Jake continued to mumble as he started to dig. Soon I could no longer feel my toes but sweat was popped out on Jake’s forehead. When he had the hole about three feet deep, he dropped the shovel and glared at me.
    “You want it any deeper, get your ass down here and dig it. And you can tell Benny I ain’t doing it.”
    He kept staring at me and I waited for realization to set in. I could see the wary question in his eyes.
    “You said this was part of my punishment? Sally?”
    “Yes,” as I pulled the gun from my pocket. “Should’ve listened, Jake, when I told you to keep your yap shut. “
    The shot sounded loud in the frozen silence.
    I sang softly as I walked, “…to Grandmother’s house we go.”

    No Greater Loss

    Oh God, it’s so hot. I can hardly wait for summer to end.
    I groaned as sweat trickled down my back. I rubbed my hand over my forehead then wiped my palm on the cotton uniform that I had ironed into crisp folds but now hung limply on my body. The desire for cooler weather was accompanied by two other wishes. One, that the air conditioner could keep us cooler in the hospital, and two, that we weren’t so short-handed, as always.
    I pulled the battered employee phone list across the desk, already dreading all the answering machines that would be picking up. No one wanted to come in, and I didn’t blame any of them. Working with an already too-short crew in this heat was enough to make anyone avoid talking to their supervisor. On this evening, however, I lucked out. I only had to call seven of my nurses until I got a willing soul to come in to lend a hand. I remembered thinking at the time, Lucky number seven. I bit my lip as the phone rang two, three, four…
    “Hi there Sara, this is Deb. I’m sorry to call you, but I need some help down here. Yeah, we’ve had a couple of nurses call in and I’m sinking fast. I wouldn’t have called if I weren’t desperate. Do you think you could come in to work? It’s not for a full shift, just the last couple of hours, but it would sure help us all out.”
    On the other end of the line, I could hear hesitation in Sara’s voice.
    “Gee, Deb, I just don’t know. Let me think just a minute, okay? Jim is at work, and Jenny is at work at the restaurant. I mean, Sammi and Justin are in bed, asleep and all… I’ve never left them alone, Deb, but I think they’d be alright. Sammi is only eight, but Justin is fourteen and could handle just about any emergency that would come up. And Jim will be home in about an hour…” She continued to mutter to herself.
    I smiled as I patiently waited for Sara to work this all out in her mind. I had known her for years so I knew better than to rush her into any decision. Even though I agreed with her that the kids would probably be just fine until their father got home, I just tapped my fingers on the desk while Sara made up her mind. I watched the second hand of the wall clock wind its way around the dial.
    “Deb, I think it’ll be okay. I’ll get dressed, wake Justin to go over the house rules again, then I’ll be in to work. Oh, and I’ll call Jim to let him know, too. I should be there in about twenty minutes.”
    “Thanks Sara, that would be a big help. We’ve got several transfers coming down from ICU and not enough nurses to handle the new admits. I’ll see you in a few minutes. Again, thanks Sara.”
    I could hear a call light buzzer sounding as I hung up the phone and I smiled once more, thankful for Sara being such a caring nurse, one always ready to help out in a bind like this one. Oh, if only all nurses were so conscientious, it would make the whole hospital run smoother.
    Eighteen minutes later, Sara came rushing through the door, clocked in at the computer, then turned to me with a smile.
    “Okay, where do you want me?”
    I gave her a brief hug as I outlined what duties I needed her to begin. The first thing I wanted was for Sara to counts medications in the drug cabinet. I tossed her the keys as I sat down to start on the mountain of paperwork that had accumulated over the last few hours. As I wrote, Sara kept up a continuing stream of conversation and I grinned as I listened to her talk about her favorite subject-her family.
    “Oh Deb, I’m so proud of Jenny taking that part-time job after school. And she’s doing so well, handling that and keeping up her grades. And Jim is just thrilled with this new job. He thinks there’s a lot of room for advancement. It’s so good to see him excited about work again, after getting laid off from a job he’d been with for so long.
    “You simply have got to come by and see how much Sammi and Justin have grown, Deb. Sammi is eight going on twenty. I swear, that girl has more common sense than most adults I know, but what a sense of humor! She makes me laugh so much. Justin, of course, is now starting to notice girls more than model airplanes. It’s so cute, watching him get those ‘puppy eyes’ when a cute girl walks past him. Good grief, they’re growing up so fast, you know?”
    I spun my chair around to smile at her. “Sara, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were crazy about your family.”
    Sara laughed self-consciously. “I guess I do talk about them an awful lot, don’t I, Deb? I can’t help it. I’m in love with every one of them. I think I’ve been truly blessed.”
    “Yeah Honey, I think you have been, too.”
    An hour later, as I was speaking with a patient about her condition and Sara was giving an injection, I heard the telephone ring at the desk. There were two other nurses on the floor but they must have been too busy to answer. I frowned as I excused myself to answer the insistent shrill sound.
    “Eleven West, this is Debra.”
    “Debra, this is Officer Collins with the police department. I need to speak with your supervisor.”
    “I’m the supervisor in charge. Is there some way I could help you?”
    “Is there a Sara Benson working there tonight?”
    “Yes Officer, she’s here. Is something wrong?”
    “Debra, there’s been…” He seemed to pull the next words from the pit of his stomach.
    “Debra, Sara needs to come home immediately. There’s been a terrible… Her husband Jim is here, waiting for her.”
    The air I gasped seemed to sear its way down my throat, setting my very heart on fire.
    “What’s the matter? I’ve known this family for a long time, Officer…”
    Officer Collins’ voice became firm. “I’m sorry, Debra, but I cannot tell you the nature of this call. I’ve told you this much only because, as her supervisor, I want you to release her from duty immediately.”
    “Of…of course.”
    “I need to speak with her, Debra. I’m not going to tell her what has happened over the phone but she’s going to need your help in the following few days or weeks.”
    “Yes, she’ll have it. Oh God…”
    “Debra, please put Sara on the phone-now.”
    I called Sara and was dismayed when I saw the color drain from her pretty face. Her eyes became round and large and terror created a white circle around her lips.
    “Officer? Please tell me what it is-I have to know.” Here she paused as Officer Collins tried to calm her. “Of course, I’ll be home right away.”
    Sara faced me with tears swimming in her eyes. “Deb, I don’t know what it is, but…”
    “It’s okay Honey, go on. I got it covered. Go now.”
    Sara grabbed her purse from the cabinet, knocking several packages of bandages to the floor. She looked momentarily confused then rushed past me to run for the elevators.
    I spoke on the phone to my director as I repositioned the packages. I told her I needed to leave immediately, to be with Sara. She told me she could be there within ten minutes and to not wait on her. I needed no further urging.
    The scene that greeted me looked like something out of a police drama on television. Strobe lights flashed kaleidoscopic lights over the neighborhood, as if to bring color to brighten the darkness that was more than the night. Even before I stepped from my car I could hear police radios squawking loudly into the heavy air. Neighbors were milling around, their heads together, trying to figure out what had happened. Policemen were running back and forth from the house to their cars, some wore angry expressions, while others were openly weeping.
    Then, against the backdrop of the cacophonous clamor, I heard a scream of terror so shrill, so heart-wrenching, it chilled the blood in my veins. I could feel my pulse beating at my throat and it felt as if the air had been vacuumed from my lungs. It was at that precise moment that Sara learned her two youngest children had been murdered less than an hour after she left them.
    I tripped over my own feet running toward the house where every light was burning. I made it as far as the sidewalk that was bordered by daffodils before I was stopped in my tracks. A young policeman whose stern countenance was offset by his youth and tears grabbed my arm, jerking me to an immediate standstill.
    “Please, let me go. These are my friends. Sara is one of my nurses. I need to go to her…”
    “No Ma’am. I’m sorry, but you can’t go in there right now. This is a crime scene and you can’t go in now.”
    “What? What happened? God, please tell me what’s wrong!”
    “I’m sorry Ma’am, but I can’t do that…”
    Two other policemen ran past me, oblivious to my presence or seeming to realize I wasn’t important to their investigation. Their words drifted back to me as they rushed back into the house.
    “I’d love to get my hands on the bastard that killed those two kids. If I could just be alone with him for…”
    I looked at the officer who seemed to grow even younger before my eyes and he sighed, realizing I’d heard what was said. At my questioning look, he gave into the pleading in my face.
    “Yes, Ma’am. The two youngest children are dead. You already know that much, now. That’s all I can tell you, though.”
    I could feel my body begin to crumple and my stomach turned gray. The policeman was polite enough to turn away as I vomited. When the spasms passed he handed me his handkerchief and helped me to my feet. He put a protective arm around me as he walked me to my car and smiled sadly as I drove away. The weight of the world had settled over my heart.
    The next morning the newspapers were filled headlines that screamed so loudly they nearly obliterated all other calamities. There was the story of two children, a boy and a girl named Bensen, murdered by an unknown assailant. Police were, of course, following several leads. One that seemed especially promising was about a man released from prison a mere forty-eight hours earlier. The man had been imprisoned for child murder and molestation, incarcerated for only eight years. The animal’s name was a familiar one. David Yarnell. The coffee in my cup grew cold, my insides knotted too tightly to drink it.
    I dreaded making the call I knew was coming, but it had to be done. I wanted to go to Sara, but only if she wanted me there. I wanted her to know I loved her and was there for her. But all I could offer were words and they seemed so useless, so barren, in the face of such a horrible, vicious loss.
    The phone only rang once at the Benson home when Jim picked it up. My tongue caught on the roof of my mouth, refusing to budge.
    “Hello? Hello! Speak, damnit!”
    I finally worked up enough moisture to form words. “Jim, I’m sorry. Hi, this is Deb.”
    Jim’s voice was brave but I could hear the ragged weariness underneath the bravado. “Hello, Deb. Sara is asleep. Our doctor had to sedate her this morning, it’s…uh, been pretty rough here.”
    I could feel the tears welling beneath my eyelids but fought to keep the tremor from my speech. “I can only imagine, Jim. I wanted to come by, speak to you and Sara, but if you think…”
    “Yes, oh yes. Please come by, Deb. Sara would like that; it would mean so much to her. She should be waking up soon. Give her a couple of hours to come out of it, drink some coffee, then drop by. I’ll tell her you’ll see her later, okay?”
    “Of course, Jim, of course. I’ll see you soon, dear.”
    When I arrived at the Benson home the street in front was lined with cars and people littered the yard. Everyone wore the same expression, heart-broken grief. I stepped from the car slowly, feeling as if I were delaying speaking with Sara as long as possible. On the heels of this, I felt guilt mixed with the sorrow. As her friend as well as her supervisor, I should push aside my own feelings and give her comfort. Squaring my shoulders, I walked briskly toward the front door that was standing open.
    The living room was filled with what I assumed were relatives and friends of the grieving Bensons. Sara was nowhere to be seen. Jim saw me and walked over to step into my open arms. I could feel the tightness in his broad shoulders and sensed the pent-up tears inside his heart.
    “Oh Deb, thanks for coming by. Sara is in our bedroom. She just can’t face all these people yet. She’s just been sitting there, staring at the ceiling. I’m so worried about her. Go on in, talk to her, maybe she’ll talk to you. God knows she can’t seem to talk to me right now. Every time she sees my face, she breaks down all over again.”
    I waded through the throng and gently rapped on the bedroom door. When I received no welcome from inside the room, I opened the door.
    Sara was lying on her back, staring blankly at the ceiling. She wasn’t crying but there were tear tracks on her face. She turned her head to look bleakly at me. As I stood there she crumbled before my eyes. Her face dissolved into a mask of grief as she held her arms out to me. I stepped quickly to close the gap between us. I held her as she sobbed, trying to understand the words she whispered through tightly clinched teeth.
    “It isn’t fair…not right. Why? I don’t understand how…”
    I had no words offer, only my love and condolences-precious little when someone has lost so much. As I listened, I began to sense more than hear what Sara was saying.
    “I can’t do this. I can’t take it. I would’ve rather it been me-not my babies. I don’t want to even try to go on. What’s the purpose?”
    I pulled away from her and glared into Sara’s tears.
    “You listen to me, Sara Benson. You stop talking like that-this minute. You hear me?”
    The only response was a softening of the harsh sobs, lapsing finally into a hiccuping sound. I softly stroked Sara’s hair, murmuring words against her damp neck. It took me several seconds to realize that not only has she stopped crying, her body had grown rigid in my arms.
    “Sara? Talk to me, honey. Don’t pull away from me, from your family. All of us need you, Sara.”
    Her face twisted into a grimace of anger, contorting into someone that I had never seen before. So rapid was the change, so intense the fury, I drew away from her, not quite sure what was happening.
    “All of you need me? I’ll bet that Sammi and Justin needed me too. And just when they needed me most, I wasn’t there, was I? I left them here, alone, to be brutalized before they were finally murdered. Oh, I’m a great mother, aren’t I, Deb? Oh yeah, and a dedicated nurse. So dedicated, in fact, I even left my children alone so some maniac could come into their home to kill them. Don’t talk to me about being needed, Deb. If you need me, I only let you down, just like Justin and Sammi. Oh God, why couldn’t it have been me, instead? Or why couldn’t I have died with them?”
    “Sara, stop it! This isn’t helping Justin and Sammi…”
    “Helping them? What a stupid thing to say since they’re dead, Deb.”
    “Sara, I’m sorry, I only meant…”
    “I know what you meant, and I’m tired of hearing it. He raped them, Deb. Did you know that? He sodomized both my babies, tortured them, and only when he got tired of his sick little game, only then did he kill them. Do you have any idea how I’m feeling right now? Don’t you understand that I want to die, too?”
    “But you have Jim and Jenny-both of them need you very much, especially now. It will strengthen you to be together. You can help each other to get through this…”
    Sara practically screamed into my face, “Get through this? How the hell am I ever going to get through this? I killed my own children, don’t you get it? It’s my fault they’re dead-mine. I’m as guilty as the animal that murdered them. I’m not going to get through this, Deb! It’s never going to end unless I end it.”
    “Sara, this is crazy. You don’t even realize what you’re saying. You can’t do this to your husband and daughter. They love you, Sara, and they’ve lost enough. They’ve lost as much as you have.”
    “Yes, they’ve lost the same people I have only they aren’t guilty. They don’t have Justin and Sammi’s blood on their hands. I do. It’s my fault. Why can’t you see this? Why can’t you understand?”
    Our voices evidently were being carried to the rest of the house, a fact I became aware of when Jim came into the room with a worried frown on his face.
    “Sara? Sweetheart? What’s wrong?”
    Sara turned on him, rather than to him, and someone closed the bedroom door that Jim had left standing open.
    “What’s wrong? What’s wrong? Are all of you people crazy? My babies are dead; they were murdered last night! What do you think is wrong?”
    Sara fell back against the wet pillows and began taking short, rapid breaths. I could tell from experience that she was hyperventilating. Jim’s face grew even more pale as he heard his wife gasping for air. He looked to me for help.
    “Deb? What’s the matter? What can we do for her?”
    “Jim, get me a paper sack-now.”
    In a matter of seconds I had the bag over Sara’s red face, instructing her to breathe slowly, deeply, into the bag. It took several minutes for her color to return to normal then she grew limp from the exhaustive scene she had just created.
    “Jim, does Sara have any tranquilizers? I’m not a big fan of drugging someone, even though I am a nurse, but she needs help here.”
    His brow was knitted in concentration, all the while he was sitting beside his wife, stroking her pasty, silent face.
    “Sara doesn’t have any, but I do. The doctor gave them to me a few months ago when I hurt my back and couldn’t sleep.”
    “Oh honey, go get them. Let’s get one into her, calm her down.”
    “Deb, I hate to do that. I mean…”
    I took his hand and pulled him to his feet. I wrapped my arms around him in a comforting hug.
    “I know that, Jim, but Sara needs this. She just needs to get some sleep and that may help her to pull herself together. It’s ok, dear. You’re only helping her.”
    He nodded numbly then shuffled from the room to get the medication.
    Sara’s exhaustion had taken her nearly into a catatonic state, so deep that she offered no resistance when I slipped the tiny pill between her cracked lips. The sip of water she took was an audible gulp in her throat. She slipped back onto the pillow, staring at the ceiling until her red-rimmed eyes closed in sleep.
    I pulled the blanket over Sara and closed the door softly behind me as I left the room. Jim met me in the hallway, we hugged briefly, then released me when he heard Jenny sobbing in her own bedroom. He turned to me with his hands held open.
    “It’s ok, Jim. Go to her; Jenny needs you now.”
    I kissed his cheek then left through the now-thinning crowd. I cried all the way home.
    I spoke with Jim the following day only long enough to find out the details of the double funeral and to tell him I was there for the family, anytime day or night.

    The sunshine that bathed the cemetery was in drastic contrast with the somber assemblage of mourners. Soft sighs and muffled sobs drifted through the leaves of the lonely tree next to the two mounds of freshly turned earth. Jenny was clinging to her father, her face pressed against his chest. Jim’s own face was layered with tears and sorrow.
    Sara stood several inches away from the remainder of her family and the distance seemed like a chasm, even to me. Jim kept glancing toward his wife, a confused look of pain evident on his tired face. Sara stared into the grave; she neither spoke nor welcomed consoling gestures from anyone. Whereas everyone wore the expected appearance of devastation, Sara’s face was set in stone, her lips drawn into a straight line. She held herself rigid, unbending. It was evident that she was harboring agony, hatred, or both inside that slender body that seemed too small to house it all.
    Two coffins were held suspended about the waiting earth. One was blue and one was pink. Sara stepped nearer and placed a hand at the head of each polished box. The minister came to stand beside her and embrace her in a comforting hug.
    “Sara, this pain will pass. I know it’s hard to accept but surely, God, in all His infinite wisdom…”
    “NO!” Sara’s voice ripped through the cemetery. “Don’t you dare tell me there’s a reason for this! Don’t you dare tell me that your almighty God had a reason for letting this happen! What kind of God would do this? Where is all His love, His compassion? How could He allow that monster…”
    Sara fell to the ground, clutching at the black dirt near her children’s graves, sobbing so hard her body trembled. Each time she could draw a deep enough breath, she’d scream in a voice so hoarse it hurt to hear it.
    Jim and Jenny both ran to Sara. They lifted her from the ground and began walking, carrying, her to the car. Her cries diminished as they drove out of the cemetery.
    I stood there, wanting to do something yet not knowing what to do once again. The few people that were left standing there seemed to feel as awkward and useless and I felt. One by one we all shuffled to our waiting vehicles. The only sound then was the grumbling of gravel beneath our tires.
    I knew that most of the Bensen’s friends and family members would go over to the house for at least a couple of hours. I had someplace to go before I joined them. It was only a five-minute drive from this cemetery to another.
    A dark cloud passed in front of the sun as I climbed from my car.
    Quite appropriate. Even God understands my mood when I arrive here.
    She had been so vibrant, so filled with life that I felt mere words on stone could never have done her justice. That’s why the headstone was so simple with little adornment. I picked up the rain-soaked teddy bear that rested against the stone and replaced it with a new one, soft pink with a white ribbon around its neck.
    Amanda Willis
    The sweetest angel in God’s Heaven

    “Hello honey. Mommy’s here. It’s been a sad day, Mandy. We’ve lost two more little angels here on Earth. Be a good girl, take them under your wing and show ‘em around Heaven, okay? Introduce them to all the other angels and tell them to not be scared. I love you, babygirl, and I miss you.”
    I kissed my fingers and brushed them against the cold granite. As I walked away I wondered at how these visits could hurt so much yet comfort me at the same time.
    I switched on the radio, vainly trying to find some music to lighten my spirit. An announcer’s authoritative voice forced its way into the car.
    “David Yarnell, the suspect being sought for the gruesome double homicide of two children was shot to death today. Police say that the suspect came running out of an abandoned building, waving a gun around and pointing it toward the officers. He ignored repeated shouts to drop his weapon. The sheriff’s department spokesman said the officers had no choice but to shoot Mr. Yarnell. The suspect was taken to a local hospital but could not be saved.”
    Mandy’s killer was dead.

    There were only a few people at the house when I got there. Jim and Jenny were walking around the living room, thanking everyone for being there for them in their time of need. Then they walked into the family room. Jenny walked into her father’s embrace and they just stood there, in the middle of the room, rocking each other back and forth. Instead of intruding on this precious moment, I made my way to the bedroom where I assumed Sara was, trying to hide from the worst pain a mother can face.
    Though her bed was empty, I could see the imprint of Sara’s body in the bedspread. I heard a noise from the bathroom so I walked to the door that stood partially ajar. Before I could speak, I saw Sara empty a prescription bottle into her palm. She placed the bottle on the counter and picked up a glass of water, raising both hands to her face.
    Without hesitation I pushed open the bathroom door and slapped the pills from Sara’s hand. The movement forced Sara to drop the glass, causing it to shatter on the tile floor. Wet shards of glass crunched under my shoes as I pulled my friend into my arms.
    Sara fought me with the fury of a woman possessed with demons of torturous heartbreak. I fought back with the strength of a mother who understood that agony.
    “Let me go, let me go, damn you! Get away from me, Debra. Get out of my house and leave me the hell alone.”
    “No, I’m not leaving, Sara. Not now—not ever.”
    She pushed on my shoulders so hard I knew they’d be bruised.
    “I can’t do it anymore. I don’t want to live when my babies are gone. It should’ve been me. I wish I were dead, not them. Not my Sammi and Justin. Oh God, let me die!”
    “No Sara, no. Stop fighting me. I’m not going to let you do this. Sammi and Justin weren’t your only family. What about Jim? What about Jenny? They need you now. You need each other. You can get through this if you’ll only let them in. Don’t push everyone away now, not when you need us the most.”
    “Get your hands off me, Deb. I’m warning you!”
    “Jim needs his wife to be there for him. He’s hurt, too, Sara. And Jenny needs her mother to hold her, to tell her it’ll be alright. Because it has to be alright, Sara, you hear me? There’s no way around this pain, no way to escape. You just have to face it, live through the impossible, then go on with your life.”
    “Yes there is an escape. I can’t, won’t go on with a life without them. You let me go right now. Don’t make me hurt you, Deb. You don’t know how this feels. You don’t know what it’s like praying that you’d never face another sunrise because it hurts too much to live one more minute like this.”
    I shook her then. I shook her the way that I wish someone had shaken me all those years ago. I screamed into her face, forced her to listen to me. Only when she stopped thrashing against me did I lower my voice to the point that she had to be quiet to hear me.
    “You’re not the only person to go through this. You’re not the only mother to lose a child at the hands of a deviant beast that preys on the small, the innocent. You’re not the first to want to die; to push everyone and everything good out of your heart until all you have is the empty shell.
    “Remember when we first met, Sara? It wasn’t too long after I’d moved back here and took the job at the hospital. Recall how you used to tease me about being promoted to supervisor so quickly because all I lived for was my job? Well, you were right, my job was all I had. But that wasn’t always the case, Sara.
    “I had a family at one time. A family as beautiful as yours, one that I could never envision living without. My husband’s name was Chuck and we had a walking, talking, breathing miracle named Amanda.
    “Amanda’s birth was truly a blessed event. Chuck and I had been married for ten years and wanted children so much. I miscarried four times before I was finally able to carry Mandy full-term. I didn’t even mind that the delivery was so rough I had to have a hysterectomy right after giving birth. What did I care now that I had my baby girl?
    “I stayed home with her the first three years until Chuck lost his job. We decided that I would go back into nursing, at least until Chuck found a job and we got back on our feet financially.
    “It was early July when my world ended. Chuck had just found out that a company had hired him and he was on cloud nine. To celebrate, he took Mandy to the zoo and we were going to dinner at a nice restaurant that night.
    “Mandy asked her daddy to buy her a snow cone. Chuck stood at the concession stand with her standing right behind him. The young man working the booth was talking on the phone, holding up a finger to tell him to hold on just a minute, he’d be right with him. When Chuck finally got his order, he turned to give the cherry snow cone to Mandy but she was gone. In the space of two minutes a man had walked up and simply taken our daughter away with him.
    “Everyone that could leave their positions began to help Chuck search for Mandy. The police were there within minutes but there was no sign of her. I nearly drove into another car while trying to get to the zoo as fast as I could. But I was wasting my time. All of us were wasting our time.
    “Mandy, my five-year-old miracle wasn’t found for almost a week. I’d thought that I would go insane waiting but that was nothing compared to how I lost my mind when the policeman came to the door, holding one of her little tennis shoes in his hand.
    “The bastard had tortured and raped her before dumping her body in a ditch. I was sedated so heavily through the entire trial that I remember very little of the proceedings.
    “However, I do remember blaming Chuck. Oh, I blamed myself, too, but after all, it was Chuck that had taken her to the zoo. It was Chuck who had let go of her hand. It was Chuck who had allowed that maniac to grab our daughter. I screamed those words at him for the next month-until he left me and filed for divorce.
    “You see, I’d lost everything. I had nothing left to live for. So I did the same thing you were going to do. I took a handful of pills and lay down to die. It was at that moment that Chuck came back to pick up the rest of his things. He found me unconscious in our bedroom.
    “He visited me in the hospital over the next few weeks. It was a long process, coming back to life. The marriage couldn’t be salvaged, though. But we have remained friends to this day.
    “I met Alan just a couple of years after I moved back here. It was then that I knew that God must love me if He steered that man into my life.”
    Sara’s eyes were round, tears swimming just on the surface.
    “I never knew that, Deb. I didn’t know that you had lost a child or even that you had been divorced.”
    “Alan and I were married not long after you and I met, before we became close friends. I wouldn’t marry him until I felt my heart had healed to the point that I could love completely again. And I was going to tell you this in a few days but well… Sara, we’ve adopted a girl, an eight-year-old named Christina.
    “I’ll always be there for her just as you have to be there for Jenny. You have to witness her first prom, her high school and college graduation, her walk down the aisle and the birth of her first baby. She’s going to need you to guide her though the ups and downs of all this life has to offer. Jim is a good man but I doubt he knows the first thing about how to rub a baby’s tummy to relieve gas.”
    She smiled for the first time since this nightmare began.
    I rubbed her shoulder and smiled with my next words. “Besides, Sara—any coward can die. It takes a strong person to live.”
    “Thank you, Debra. I know that had to be painful and I appreciate you shaking some sense into me. It’s going to be hard but I think we can all get through this. I’m sure there will be days that will be tough to get through. But as you said, it’ll be easier to do it together.”
    Sara hugged me as tightly as I held her. Hand in hand we walked into the living room. All the other guests had left. Jim and Jenny stood from the couch when we walked into the room. Sara held out her arms and both husband and daughter rushed to join her encircled arms.
    Yes, it was going to be a long and difficult journey but together they could make it.
    I didn’t even say goodbye; I just left. I had to make a few stops on my way home. First place was the hardware store.
    I wonder if Christina will like her new room painted in pink.

    Crisis Intervention

    Survivors of homicide victims who call National Parents of Murdered Children (POMC®) Headquarters receive crisis intervention, compassion, and comfort and can be referred to the Chapter or Contact Person closest to them, creating a national network of support. Please contact the National POMC Headquarters for more information.
    Contact Information
    National Office:
    (888) 818-POMC (toll free)
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